Veterans’ Day 2008 in the United States has come and gone now. It originated as Armistice Day to celebrate the armistice that ended combat on the Western Front in Europe in the First World War. It evolved into Veterans’ Day within the U.S.A. to honor veterans of all America’s wars. In other countries involved in the First World War it is still remembered as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. Major hostilities officially ceased with the German surrender in 1918 at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
Called the Great War, the War to End all Wars, it was neither the first nor the last world war, although it was the most terrible up to that time. Nor did it end with the signing of the Armistice. The actual peace treaty officially ending the war wasn’t signed until 1919 and fighting continued on other fronts as the international slaughter morphed into a vast, interconnected network of revolutions and civil wars across several continents and included great violence in Russia, Germany, China, the Middle East, Mexico, and elsewhere.
The so-called Spanish influenza pandemic swept around the planet in the wake of the First World War and killed more people than the war itself. The wars spawned by World War I eventually converged into the Second World War such that some historians include the violence of 1914-1945 with the Great Depression in between all one monstrous war. Some go further and include the Cold War of 1945-1991 as the last phase of a truly Great War.
My grandfather, Carroll M. Bass of Richmond, Virginia, served in the U.S. Navy in the Great War. All I can remember from family stories of that time is that he was out in the Atlantic Ocean hunting German U-boats as part of an anti-submarine unit. There was always present the fear of being torpedoed, blown up and sunk in unimaginably deep, cold water. A medal lies on my desk, an old tarnished coin-like medal. Face-up is an image of what I fancy is woman in a long dress waving good-bye or hello with a smaller, encircled image of the Goddess of Justice. On the back is inscribed, “Presented by the citizens of Richmond, VA to C.M.B. (illegible) in grateful recognition of patriotic service in the World War, 1917-1918.”
His son, William M. Bass, my daddy, later served five years in the U.S. Navy during the Cold War and the Korean War. Dad had his enlistment frozen for an additional year, and his proudest service was as a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Midway, the lead ship of her class. In my family tree I also had relatives who served in the American Revolution against the British, for the Confederates in the US Civil War, in World War II, and in Vietnam. We honored these veterans for their service, and I honor these veterans even if I disagreed strongly with the Confederate cause and opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Me? I am no veteran, as I was never a member of the Armed Forces. I’m hearing impaired. Which means I’m partially deaf in both ears. Once in the late 1970s I tried to enlist in every branch of the military.
One recruiter squinted at me and asked, “Do you really want a paper-pushin’ desk job in the military?”
Not me. I fancied myself as too much of a natural warrior to twiddle pencils.
“No, thank you, sir,” I replied. “Not really.”
“Well, you wouldn’t even make it in a desk job with you being hard of hearing and all.”
And that was that. I wouldn’t get far in combat trying to dart over and stab Communist troops with a #2 lead pencil.
In the U.S. the term “veteran” officially refers to members of the United States Armed Forces. That includes women as well as obviously, men. A veteran does not have to engage in combat or even during wartime. Their sacrifice is their service and hoping they won’t have to experience combat.
What about, however, members of intelligence and police forces that served in wars, such as CIA agents? Should veterans include guerrilla fighters who fight on the American side but who are or were not actual members of the U.S. Military? During the Civil War of the 1860s there many guerrillas on both sides who were not official military, and many of them also committed atrocities.
There are other questions society has left unresolved. Are those who fought in the American Colonial forces for the British Empire considered veterans? Would Native Americans who fought against United States forces in the Indian Wars be considered veterans, too? Were Confederate veterans ever truly rehabilitated? And Americans who fought on opposing sides in the numerous, small but ugly local wars that speckle U.S. history were certainly not all members of the Armed Forces.
The U.S. has a surprisingly large number of local wars: race wars, riots, local insurrections and rebellions, labor wars, range wars, gang wars, mining wars, even fishing wars. Surely veterans of those conflicts would not be considered Veterans. Unless forces representing political and military authorities intervened in official capacity.
We honor our veterans. They and their families make tremendous sacrifices. Long tours of duty far from home, uprooting families to move from base to base, domestic strife, death, injury, horrible maiming injuries, high exposure to disease, imprisonment, torture, and psychological and emotional damage. Whether veterans are drafted or volunteered, they and their families should be honored. They should be honored regardless of their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation as long as they served honorably. The only exception to dishonorable conduct may be actions stemming from psychological or physical trauma that warps one’s ability to choose.
It is shameful to hold up benefits for our veterans and their families, or to deny or repeal them. They are worth every dollar. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Some would say that is death. Others would say it is coming back alive with arms and legs blown off or a face mangled and burned away. Others would include the devastation of post-traumatic stress syndrome and the disruption of families.
Veterans need to be taught skills to support their reintegration into society, and they need to be better paid. There should be no homeless vets. Yes, I know…shoulda-woulda-couldas are just that, shoulda-woulda-couldas. Still, the existence of so many homeless and destitute veterans is the ultimate shame of a prosperous nation. Homelessness is itself symptomatic of our culture gone awry. Worse, for veterans to be allowed to fall through the cracks while we bail out Wall Street banksters and corporate chubby kitties is shameful.
More problematic, however, is honoring veterans of wars not officially called wars. American military forces engaged in many military interventions in a number of small, volatile countries. These conflicts were wars in every other sense of the term. Most of these “non-war” wars were unpopular and even considered unjust.
Do we honor every veteran who follows his or her Commander-in-Chief orders to fight in wars viewed as illegal, morally wrong, unjust, or ill conceived? What about unconstitutional wars such as the current campaigns in Iraq? What about all the wars and invasions under both Republican and Democratic presidents that were not supportive of America’s vital interests but instead supported the financial greed of capitalist barons in the growing Corporatocracy? What about wars expended to support the growing weight of the military-industrial-intelligence complex? These wars are cloaked in patriotism. Should we support our troops in every case?
The Second Indochina or Vietnam War saw the first widespread and organized resistance to a war by its own American veterans. Many U.S. veterans today opposed the so-called Global Long War on Terrorism with its preemptive campaigns around the world. They support a wiser and more thoughtful and conservative use of American blood, treasure, and firepower. Not every war is justified. Few are. And once you’re in it, it’s too late. Even if a mistaken course is rejected, the damage is done.
American veterans that engaged in atrocities, whether in the past against Native American tribes, Filipino nationalists, Vietnamese peasants caught up in a civil war, or in today’s War on Terror need to be held accountable and prosecuted for war crimes. We all are accountable for the conduct of our armed forces when they serve on our behalf. And we need to make sure they are serving the interests of all Americans and our Constitution, not the corporate interests of Free Traders.
As a global superpower the United States is one of the most aggressive projectors of military force in human history. This power demands wise and responsible use, not acting as a teenaged, macho gunslinger. Together with the European Union and many other allies around the world welded together by the globalized Bank Cartel and the Corporatocracy it constitutes a de-facto Euro-American Global Empire. Its glue is far more economic and financial than political and social, it differs from empires of old, but American military might provides the shield and the sword.
This is not what our troops should serve. Our troops should serve the ideals that inspired the American Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, not the whims of politicians and their corporate contributors. To be clear, many politicians are honorable and many businesses ethical and we as citizens have a responsibility to stay vigilant. Not just vigilant against assaults on our liberties from our own government in the disguise of freedom, but vigilant, too, against the misuse of our Armed Forces, the neglect of our veterans, and against crimes committed by our forces including the suppression of evidence.
Sometimes I could almost weep for the soldiers. Sometimes. I’ve met a few of them, young men and women. Many enlisted in the wake of 9/11. What several officers who have protested the Bush Regime’s abuses of power, including misuse of our military, point out is that when one joins the American armed forces one takes an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States of America. They do not take an oath to a person or to a specific office. They are not to blindly follow orders that are in violation of law. Many of us forget that.
Freedom demands a healthy military, a wise foreign policy, strategic interdependence with the rest of the world, sustainable economics, and vigilant citizenry. And respect for all of our veterans who serve honorably regardless of their mission. Most importantly, however, we must find the courage within ourselves to honor those soldiers and veterans who risk ridicule, job loss, harassment, imprisonment, fines, even murder to refuse to fight in wars that are unconstitutional, illegal, and morally wrong.
William Dudley Bass
13 November 2008
Revised and reposted15 December 2011
NOTE: This essay was originally published as “Two Days After Veteran’s Day” in my earlier blog At the Brink at, http://atthebrinkwithwilliamdudleybass.blogspot.com/2008/11/two-days-after-veterans-day.html, then revised, rewritten, and re-published here this December 2011. Thank you.
Copyright © 2008, 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.