From Bernard Weisberge – American history professor, columnist, contributor to Bill Moyers + Ken Burns documentaries and WWI veteran.
Something about the familiar words reminded me uncomfortably of remarks by past presidents that have now become virtually standard every year. Obama sounded the opening theme: Today we gather once more to honor patriots who have rendered the highest service any American can offer this nation — those who fought for our freedom and stood sentry for our security. In the life of our nation, across every generation, there are those who… put on the uniform and …put their lives on the line. They do this so that the rest of us might live in a country and a world that is safer, freer and more just. Then, after invoking the magic place names — Lexington Green, Gettysburg, the beaches of Europe and the islands of the Pacific, with a nod to Korea — he got to recent history. “From the jungles of Vietnam to Desert Storm to the mountains of the Balkans, they have answered America’s call. And since America was attacked on that clear September morning, millions more have assumed that mantle, defining one of the greatest generations of military service this country has ever produced.
But I have some qualifications. For one thing, pinning figurative “Hero” medals on every veteran’s chest, like all rhetorical excesses, dilutes the value of decorations earned by genuine acts of extraordinary valor. “When everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody.” What’s more, not every soldier is an admirable specimen of humanity. The ranks also include goldbricks, bootlickers, self-promoters and artful dodgers; plus both noncommissioned and commissioned officers who take advantage of the military’s hierarchical structure to become petty tyrants. Every honest vet knows that. Nor is bravery under bombardment a character trait conferred by God only on those whose cause is just. Many an SS trooper in France, and no doubt many a Soviet enlisted man or officer in Afghanistan probably performed gallantly in a bad cause just as tyrants’ armies have always done. Let’s respect heroism but not overrate it as a universal sanitizer.
What, then are my remaining feelings surrounding Veterans Day this year? The first is anger at the capture and rebranding of what I knew, growing up, as Armistice Day. It was a celebration of the return of peace in 1918 after four years of massive and brutal slaughter in the trenches of the stalemated Western Front, not to mention other equally destructive theaters of war. What could have been a day of dedication to efforts to make sure that such catastrophes could never happen again has been hijacked to the militaristic message that it is only armed force that guarantees freedom. In fact the war of 1914-18 was supposedly “the war to end wars.” My father served in that one, but just 24 years later I was putting on the uniform for the next act, the war of 1939-45. I still feel that that one came as close as possible to a necessary war and am proud of my small role in it. But by 1965 my son was old enough to be eligible for service in Vietnam and in 2008 his son could have been sent to Afghanistan if there was a draft — though luckily, from my point of view, neither did so. So beside my anger, a deep sadness envelops me when I look at that record. There simply has to be some way to stop this endless chain of generations ravaged by wars.
We in the separately named Army of the United States were “temps,” signed up for the duration. We were summoned to service in a time of genuine need without much time for us to be trained, but as the war went on, we performed better and better against more experienced German and Japanese forces, aided, of course, by America’s astonishing productive capacities which gave us an ever-increasing superiority in materiel. But we were overjoyed to return to civil life when the need was gone. We were, in short, citizen-soldiers of a democracy. That’s the honorable title which I’ll always be proud to claim and it beats any other military rank that I care about or ever will.