Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why progressives should celebrate Veterans Day

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"In Flanders fields the poppies blow . . ."

"Canadians believe in peace in no small part because they make a point of stopping, once every year, to truly ponder the cost of war -- to look their veterans in the eyes, and take in the damage, and thank them. And, perhaps, to ask forgiveness for asking so much."
-- Sara Robinson, in a post yesterday on CAF's Our Future blog,
"Why Progressives Should Celebrate Veterans' Day"

by Ken

Say, didn't today used to be Veterans Day?

It's not a hard date to remember: November 11, 11/11 at 11:00. A whole bunch of people died because some genius decided to set that time for the suspension of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I. (I know there's a figure for the number of people who died for this little bit of historical cuteness, but I can't lay hands on it right now.)

It used to be Armistice Day, but then in 1954 was transformed into Veterans Day -- with, officially, no apostrophe [not "hyphen," as I wrote originally; boy, when those brain cells start dying . . .], I learn from Wikipedia -- celebrating all veterans. Unless we don't actually celebrate it, that is.

In Canada, Sara Robinson tells us in her remarkable post (which you should really read in full at the link above), they celebrate Remembrance Day:
Most Canadian cities have permanent spaces designed specifically for Remembrance Day exercises. Even small towns boast a downtown park dominated by a tall and stately stone cenotaph, a memorial obelisk that is the centerpiece of the day's events. On November 11, these parks are full to the edges, because nobody, no matter how anti-war, misses the event. (In 2006, the CBC reported the dismal news that only two-thirds of Canadians had attend some kind of Remembrance Day exercises. The horror.)

And it's a show worth showing up for. Brass and bagpipe bands march. The Mounties turn out in their scarlet coats. Old men stand a bit straighter in their regimental jackets and kilts, their chests full of medals, to receive their nation's honor once again. Brilliant red poppies bloom on the lapel of every dark coat as the poem "In Flanders Fields" (written by Canadian officer John McCrae, and inscribed in the memory of every Canadian schoolchild) is read aloud. Families come together, and go out for lunch after. Every civic group and church comes forward to present a wreath in memory of Canada's fallen soldiers, in a procession that can last well into the afternoon and ends with enormous piles of greenery and poppies banking the monument. And at 11:00 sharp, the entire country -- in streets, in stores, everywhere -- comes to a dead halt, observing a full two minutes of national silence honoring the moment that the Armistice began, and World War I came to an end. . . .

Tomorrow, as the city falls silent at 11 am, I will marvel -- as I do every year -- at the fullness with which peaceable Canadians embrace the sacrifices of war, and the unconflictedness of their feelings toward their veterans. This is the country that is known, more than any other, as the world's peacekeepers. Their whole culture is built around conflict avoidance; that scrupulous gentleness and politeness goes bone-deep, and there is no doubt in most of their minds that war usually entails far more mindless waste than it does noble and worthy sacrifice. And yet, there they are, standing for hours in the November wind and rain, coming out once again to honor those who fought in a war that wasn't even really their own. At first, this seemed like a massive contradiction. But last year, during that long quiet minute, I finally understood.

It is not a contradiction. In fact, Remembrance Day and Canadian pacifism are two essential parts of one consistent whole. Canadians believe in peace in no small part because they make a point of stopping, once every year, to truly ponder the cost of war -- to look their veterans in the eyes, and take in the damage, and thank them. And, perhaps, to ask forgiveness for asking so much. They gather at the cenotaphs to remind themselves and their children of what is lost, and how precious life is, and how very important it is not to allow those kinds of conflicts to get started in the first place. It is that annual willingness to come back, year after year, and unflinchingly take stock of the prices paid that drives their determination to pursue peace. If they failed to remember, to open their hearts to their grief as thoroughly as they do, their commitment to peace might not be so strong. Those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

Sara notes that, except among veterans, Veterans Day slipped down the American memory hole in the wake of Vietnam. ("We were so conflicted about that war that any holiday about war did more to divide us than it did to bring us together"). And then in the Reagan era what was left of the holiday was "captured by pro-military groups, and voices promoting peace were shut out of the discussion."
And I think that's a loss. I suspect there's a direct relationship between the near-invisibility of Veterans' Day and the near-invisibility of our support for our veterans -- or our awareness of the true costs of our current wars. It's a lot easier on our corporate masters if we spend the day shopping the Veterans' Day sales at the mall, rather than spending it standing out on Main Street listening to our veterans' stories and confronting the actual flesh-and-blood consequences of our leaders' decisions. The devaluation of Veterans' Day is of a piece with the way the Bush Administration brings fallen soldiers home in the dead of night, or embeds reporters, or cheats veterans out of their benefits. It's all a distraction, another inducement to look the other way. For all the talk of "supporting our troops," the last thing they want is for us to gather by the thousands in the park, and be sobered into silence once again by the magnitude of the sacrifice these men and women are making.

My Canadian experience suggests that a heartfelt willingness to stop, remember, and honestly reckon the cost can bring tremendous moral gravity and authenticity to progressive arguments for reason, diplomacy, and peace. Beyond that, it's a lot harder to ignore the needs of our veterans when you see their proud faces out there, every November 11, accepting the nation's thanks. You're forced to realize that once a year isn't enough; that they are part of your community, and their day-to-day care is a community responsibility. The "thanks" rings hollow if you're not backing up the words with real and constant support. If we stopped the country for a full day just to look at all that, as the Canadians do, I think the things we'd see would change the terms of our conversation about war forever.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

— John McCrae
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7 Comments:

At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Joshua Poulsen said...

On the 11th Day of the 11th month each year, Americans come together to honor those in uniform, the ones who sacrificed for our nation, on Veterans Day. As a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan, War on Terror, I urge everyone to take this day to not just thank a veteran, but to talk with veterans. Learn about how our experiences have shaped our lives and what issues we face as we make our transitions back to civilian life. I would like to explain my side of the story, my own experience.

When I joined the military I was a young, confused kid, who did not know much about life, due to being sheltered for most of my life by my over protective parents. I did not know much about the war, just that I was enraged at the hatred those terrorists had for all Americans and me. I wanted to help my country, to protect it at all cost, even giving up my life to do so. It may sound funny but when I initially tried to enlist in the military, I was to be a military post-man, but the job had already been taken. Since I am color-blind, I wasn’t able to have a range of opportunities in the military. My placement was therefore in Mortuary Affairs Specialist. I felt that I grew up quicker in my years in service than most people do in their whole lifetime.

I was nineteen years old on February 8th, 2002. It was kind of cold for Phoenix as I reached the Airport headed to Fort Jackson, in South Carolina for basic training. Upon reaching Fort Jackson, referred by some in the service as relaxant Jackson, I found that the life I had chosen would not be as easy as I thought. Those first couple of days I got a hair cut, issued uniforms, and learned the waiting line for training was long. During this time, since 9/11, there was a mass influx of new recruits; the Army had problems finding them units to train in. For me I was lucky kind of, since I had a school date that did not come around very often, they tried to offer me another job, but I turn them down, I was shipped from Fort Jackson, then to Fort Lenderwood Missionary. The Ozark Mountains are cold and during winter, it was unbearable. It was an extreme change for me because I was mostly familiar with the hot weather in Phoenix, AZ. Exercising and running in extreme weather with being out shape was horrible. There was no special treatment for anyone but the drill sergeants made me work twice as hard. The treatment I received was something similar to a movie, where the fat kid got picked on and abused, but it was some thing I needed in order to become who I need to be. Despite this, I worked hard, did everything I was ordered to do, and eventually I graduated from boot camp with a new physique. During graduation, my fellow recruits honored me with “The Most Changed Person” reward, the Order of the Dragoon.

I was off to my next challenge, training for my MOS. When I reached Fort Lee, Virginia, I missed my start date and had to wait for the next one. This meant that I couldn’t get a pass to go anywhere; I had to just sit at the barracks, clean the floors, and do KP duty. After awhile this routine got incommodious. I was so happy on Memorial Day 2002, because the next day I was scheduled to start school. Then all of a sudden, I had horrible stomach pains, and could not figure what it was. So I was sent me off to the ER, the doctors initially diagnosed appendix problems. The one-hour surgery was then scheduled immediately, however it took five hours to complete. Apparently, my appendix had been ruptured for over a month including basic training. The surgeons said I am so lucky to be alive. I got a month off to recover and relax. When I got back to Fort Lee, I had to wait another month for class, so eventually when I got to school; I did my best to learn about my job and almost graduated at the top of my class. The reason why I did not graduate at the top of my class was due to my stomach muscles not fully recovering, which made doing sit-ups very hard. I did it because I wanted to join my unit at Fort Lee.

My feelings of excitement and wanting to serve were still in tact even after months of prolong waiting and recovery. In order to be all that I could be, to be the best, I exceed my own abilities by 120%. The mindset I had, came a long way (physically from Phoenix and mentally from the first story I heard about the terrorist attacks), I had really changed for the better. In the first year, I received my first (minor) medal, the Army Achievement Medal. With this acknowledgement from the Army, I wanted to speed up my deployment overseas to Afghanistan, but that wasn’t going to happen until March 18th 2003. According to orders, my team that I was assigned to from my unit wasn’t schedule to arrive in Iraq first. Instead, I worked in the Theater Mortuary Affairs Evacuation Point, a place that went nonstop for the first three months.

Sleep was limited to when I did not hear a helicopter, and when body’s slowed down coming in. In the states I had worked at the Richmond Morgue, but war was different. Instead of just seeing some one you did not know in the states, in Kuwait you learn to know every one, due to them wearing the same uniform, and inventorying all their personal effects, you knew who they wear when they left. Not only was our job to process Americans, but we also helped process British, and any other Allies. During this time I saw the mistakes we made, such as shooting British helicopter down with Sam missiles, and killing Brazilin journalist when we hit the wrong building, during that time I saw the horrors that mankind was possible of. I start experiences, problems, and tried to seek medical help, but I was deferred and told I would be fine. My excitement had come to an end, and I start to get in trouble, pretty soon my 1st Sgt, thought that I was not experiencing enough of the war, so he sent me to the Iraq, Camp Alsad. In Camp Alsad, was slow, but became difficult. Some of the soldiers I ate with at the chow hall, and knew were head on a rest and relaxation mission, but instead of making it, their helicopter was shot down. My team had to go clean the site, recover the bodies, and inventory their belongings. Man life is tough, but even tougher if you know the people. There were two other tough missions. The first were, when three Special Forces soldiers had been killed, when they were given orders not to shoot into a crowd even if they were receiving fire, not only did we have to process their bodies, but we also had to process the bodies of the people who had killed them. We are mortuary affairs first, and as such we have a moral obligation not to look at uniform, or lack of one, but to look at the person and understand their journey had come to a end, and it was our job to treat them with respect because every one has family and friends that care for them, it was not are job to judge right or wrong, which is very hard. The second tough mission was when we went with a convoy head to a site, that they had reportedly killed Sadam Husain, but in fact the compound was filled with animals and women and children. I do not think the Air Force meant to kill them, they were trying to do there job in following cell phone singles, and when they split, they went after the most likely target. On this mission two things had happened. One back in Alsad I was having bad night terrors, but the person in charge of my team figured the answer was not sending me back, but instead was to put me on night duty, and to change the location I slept on, in the location I was, this almost spelled disaster for me and my friend, when I woke up and started to scream at the top of my lungs, the people sleeping around the truck react and were about to shoot in the back of the truck, when my Sgt yelled stop he is just dreaming, oh thank god. The second thing is as I stated before, we are trained to respect the dead, and their belongings. This did not transfer to the people there, instead they were ordered to bury everything, destroy all evidence and move on. That pretty much covers Iraq.

When I got back to the states, I faced many hardships under the care of the Army. I am like millions of other veterans dealing with mental and physical scars of war. Most Americans will never know about these issues because it is not covered in the news or articles. The Army has become a two-sided issue for me; it was once a place where I wanted to succeed at being a great solider and fight for our rights and our country. Now that I came home I am still fighting another battle, however, this fight, I fight alone. I am trying to cope with sudden flashbacks, traumatizing combat events, hyper-vigilance to the recurrence of danger, feelings of numbness, low self-esteem, rage, and lapses in concentration. All of these have caused me to descend in my quality of life. I thought the Army and my unit would continue to care for me, treat me as a fellow solider, and assist me with finding resources for coping and healing. However, this was not the case, my unit classified me as a troublemaker, an unfit solider. As a result, they discharged me out of the Army abruptly without taking responsibility for the causes of my PTSD illnesses. Like other soldiers, I tried to reach out for help but once the system failed, I tried to commit suicide twice during my service. Luckily, both times, one of my few friends stopped me. This incident put me in a mental hospital involuntarily, where they doped me up on strong medicines, and no one cared to seek the reasons behind the action. I wasn’t allowed to receive my care at the Army hospital, because if procedures were followed, there would have been a long investigation and no one wanted to take the time to take care of their wounded soldiers with PTSD. Instead, I was discharged immediately with personality disorder. This seems to be the common practice for the Army, not just in my case but also 20,000 other veterans. At 5 P.M. September 16, 2004, my last official orders from the Army were, TO GET OUT!! Heavily medicated, I received my car keys, and was told to drive over 5000 miles, all the way home to Phoenix, Arizona. My feelings that proscribed afterwards are indescribable.

Even though I am still in my own body, this whole experience has shaped my life. Following my physical return home to Phoenix, AZ, I, however, didn’t return home with my state of mentality. My homecoming wasn’t what I imagined, that is because it was based on tv and movies I’ve seen about returning soldiers as hero’s. I became hospitalized time and time again.

Don’t worry, my story gets better and does have a great beginning. This new chapter in my life begins with the chance meeting the love of my life, my wife. With her continued support, I am able to handle some things on my own. A great support system, love, understanding, and patience, is what I think all soldiers should have and receive upon their return home. After all, the important issue is that we are all humans! With the good and the bad, we will always have our memories.

So on this Veterans Day and every day the best way to honor our veterans is to connect with them. So please remember and honor our fellow humans, our veterans. Without recognition from our family and friends, it doesn’t seem like all of our efforts make a difference. Many of us new veterans are being left behind, we have honored you by defending your rights, and all we ask is to welcome us home.

Sincerely,
Joshua C. Poulsen
Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran

 
At 10:25 AM, Anonymous anarchore said...

Canadians are against war, but that doesn't stop the polluticians from using it as war propaganda. I would be in favour of scrapping it entirely and remaking it as an antiwar day, along the lines of 'never again', and heaping scorn on the wars of yesterday, including WWII, which we now know was completely unnecessary.

 
At 11:24 AM, Blogger tech98 said...

The Last Soldiers to Die in World War I

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7696021.stm

Heartbreaking. Some field commanders kept fighting that morning even knowing the Armistice was hours away, with thousands of casualties. American soldier Henry Gunther died charging a German machine gun at 10:59am.

 
At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Thanks for your service Joshua.

 
At 4:41 AM, Anonymous Richard Stanczak said...

Ken, as a Canadian I think I can safely say that even the two-thirds number that was quoted is ridiculously high. It probably includes anyone who 'remembers' to stop working for the eleven seconds of [ahem]silence at eleven. There is an ongoing debate about making this day a national holiday. In the minds of a lot of military lovers this will allow everyone to flock to the cenotaph. I believe it will turn into the ceremonial start of the Xmas shopping season. Whoopee!

Rememberance Day has been turned from a day to honour our soldiers and their sacrifices, into a celebration of militarism and unending war and aggression in defence of the ruling elites interests.

 
At 4:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poor Joshua...! I would rather hear fat ladies fart than hear a grown man cry.War is not for the weak or quitters....suck it up & GROW UP!

 
At 9:34 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks to all the commenters -- and especially to Joshua for sharing his story, of course. At DWT we've tried to argue as forcefully as we could that it's scandalous for him to have to feel alone in putting his life pack together.

And Richard, thanks for sharing your take on Remembrance Day, which makes it sound depressingly like what our Veterans Day has deteriorated to. I sure like Sara's version better, for BOTH our countries.

Ken

 

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