Today is Veterans' Day here in the US. Elsewhere it is called Remembrance Day or Armistice Day. This year more than ever I have mixed feelings about it. First of all, I am a veteran. Although I did not engage in combat during my service, nor was there even a declared war going on during my tour of duty (1994-1998), still I served. I did my time. I still feel a sense of entitlement on Veterans' Day. Where, I ask, is my cookie? I should get the day off. On the other hand, I am beginning to think that it is wrong to over-glorify war and warriors.
A good friend bought me a book this weekend called Peace Prayers: Meditations, Affirmations, Invocations, Poems, and Prayers for Peace (ISBN: 0062504649). I read about half of it this weekend and was moved deeply. There are some good messages in there. One Whitman poem, written, I assume, about the Civil War, which Whitman observed first hand while volunteering in Union hospitals, had me nearly in tears. "Come Up from the Fields Father" it was called. Damn, it hurt to read.
What is the use in glorifying warriors? I've heard war called the failure of diplomacy, the failure of statecraft. What is the use in celebrating it? We should be ashamed. But the Old Men in their offices want us to be excited about it, to be enchanted with the beauty of it. They want it to be something inviting to us - a seduction. But it is bullshit, a lie. Wilfred Owen calls it "the old lie" because it is as old as civilization itself: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. They want us to be seduced by it so that we will willingly go when they decide to have one of their wars, when they cannot agree with Fat Old Men on other offices. When Fat Old Men disagree, they send the Young to die. Wars should be regarded as what they are, our worst attributes writ large.
But what about the people that go to war? Are they nothing but the innocent dupes of the wicked Old Men? Perhaps if we lived in a time of conscription, where the Young were impressed into service, threatened with imprisonment or worse if they did not serve, but we are not. At least not in the United States. Our military is a volunteer force. People wake up, go to the recruiting office, and sign their names on the dotted line. Therefore, by an act of will, they become accomplices of the Old Men.
In my dreams, the Young refuse. They stay at home and sit on their hands. They plant gardens and build things. They care for their loved ones and raise children that agree that war is a sickening plague, an aberration, an abomination. The recruiting offices are empty, the aircraft hangers are empty, the warships gather rust, the weapon racks become decorated with cobwebs, and the Old Men in their offices wonder what to do now that the option of war is closed to them.
But this is a idealistic dream. But I can still act on it. I can march, and picket, and protest, and write letters, and vote. Object and resist. I can teach my daughter, when she is born, that there is another way of looking at things besides what the Old Men say. Peace is an option. Peace != Cowardice. Peace != Appeasement. Peace != Weakness.
So today, when I have time to reflect, I am reflecting on my own service. I am not ashamed. I was seduced by the Old Lie, too. I did not kill anyone, but I still swore oaths and signed my name. But what am I going to tell my daughter about my complicity, my contribution to the Old Lie? This is on my mind today - Veterans' Day 2002.