I managed to avoid Veterans Day for most of my life, but a few years ago the college where I teach began organizing an annual Veterans Day lunch to recognize staff and faculty, and more recently, students, who’ve served in the military. As it happens, I’m a member of the affirmative action committee that puts it on and so I find myself obliged to attend. The problem for me, and it’s been the same since the first of these events, is the series of short, punchy speeches we’re subjected to, explaining unrelentingly that we’ve come together to honor those who “defend our freedom and democracy.” I am notoriously outspoken. Yet for some reason I don’t fully fathom, I’m unable to stand up and challenge this claim. After this year’s lunch, several people who appreciate my tendency to speak up asked why I never have anything to say at these events. “I’d have to talk about my sense of outrage, my bitterness, my resentments,” I explained to each. “And somehow it just doesn’t feel appropriate.” I was met with understanding nods—yes, it’s probably better for me to hold my tongue.
And so I find myself writing this now, I suppose, to exhort myself for next year. I really don’t know if I can put up with this anymore.
Somewhere near the center of what agitates me is screaming ambivalence about my time in the military, though I’m really not ambivalent about the war itself. I continue feeling the same anguished guilt I’ve experienced for nearly forty-five years now as a consequence of having participated in that ill-begotten colonial war. No, what’s at issue is my larger confusion about the nature and meaning of military service itself. Is it really service, or is it aggression? I self-consciously avoid saying “the service” when I speak of my time in the military, but doing so self-consciously means I never lose sight of what for me is the real core of the problem: I want to take pride in having volunteered to serve my country, and particularly in having readily risked my life day in and day out during the course of my tour of duty, but how, I keep asking myself, can I take pride in having been a part of a scourge that brought such devastation and misery to the long-suffering people of Southeast Asia?
Over the years I’ve come to understand that my country’s politicians didn’t send my comrades and me to Vietnam to defend America’s freedom and democracy, as our national myths claim. They sent us there to protect their own political viability (and I recognize the irony in that word choice; I can hear the young Bill Clinton, who didn’t want to go to war, avoiding anti-war activities with the explanation that he wanted to preserve his “political viability”). Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes and Robert McNamara’s memoirs have pretty well established how clearly they understood both that they were resorting to subterfuge in the Tonkin Gulf in order to further provoke the conflict there and that, short of nuclear war, the United States was in no position to prevail against the Vietnamese.
I am, I admit, bitter and resentful. I feel betrayed, stabbed in the back. Ordinarily I live with this, and go on about my business. But when I see that the travesty has been repeated with a new generation in Afghanistan and Iraq, with similar lies peddled to both the troops and the populace at home – when I in sit a room of well-meaning folks who mindlessly, or at least naively (I don’t think they’re doing it malevolently) repeat the “defending our freedom and democracy” hypocrisy – I struggle to stifle my raging urge to leap from my seat and shout out my heartfelt disagreement. And then I think of the rage of Achilles, hero of the Iliad, who has finally had enough of injustice. The poem commences with Achilles’s rage, and the entire epic turns on it, until at last he is redeemed by his compassion for the grieving father of Hector, the Trojan hero he has slain. I wonder if my failure to stand and speak, to protest the territory staked out in these awful Veterans Day speeches, the claims of honor grounded in specious notions about defending our freedom and democracy, is itself a matter of compassion, of not wanting to offend my brothers-in-arms.
And that is the deeper source of my disquiet. How can it be, I think to myself, that I’m afraid to offend these brave men and women? Do I so discount their strengths that I suppose they can't handle a little controversy?
Perhaps I’ve successfully exhorted myself. Perhaps I have convinced myself that it’s okay to remind my comrades that in any proper sense of the language, our wars abroad are only minimally, marginally, about defending our country and its “way of life,” as they say at Yankee Stadium before Kate Smith sings “God Bless America.” But the point is this: As long as we keep repeating this nonsense, we help fuel the war machine abroad while starving the support services for our vets at home. As long as vets are misled by the sleight of hand informing them that the honor of defending America repays them for what they’ve suffered, and continue to suffer, they’ll be far more prone to live with a system badly out of kilter. And so I ask: How much longer will nearly all the funding be spent projecting American power abroad, thus lining the pockets of the companies that supply the wars, and financing political campaigns? How much longer will all this funding go to those things instead of to the government agency charged with healing our vets, one that is seemingly incapable right now of preventing them from killing themselves at an increasingly furious pace? (1)
Endnotes: (1) Last year, some 301 known military suicides accounted for 20 percent of U.S. military deaths. The numbers are worse for 2012, with the Army and Navy reporting record highs, and the Marine Corps and Air Force close behind. As of mid November, confirmed or suspected suicides among active-duty forces across the military reached 323, surpassing the Pentagon's previous high of 310 suicides set in 2009.From 2001 to August 2012, the U.S. military counted 2,676 suicides. As for veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 3,871 veterans who were enrolled in VA care killed themselves in 2008 and 2009.
Glenn Petersen has been teaching at Baruch College since 1977, and also at the City University of New York’s GraduateCenter since 1987. He teaches anthropology and geography at Baruch; at the Graduate Center he teaches in the Ph.D. Program in Anthropology and in the Master’s Program in Liberal Studies (MALS), where he specializes in international affairs. He did his undergraduate studies at California State College, Hayward, and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University. A veteran who saw considerable combat duty in Vietnam, he now serves as the faculty advisor for Baruch’s veterans club. He is also deeply engaged in the affairs of Baruch’s Faculty Senate and the campus chapter of the university’s faculty union, PSC-CUNY. His books include One Man Cannot Rule a Thousand: Fission in a Ponapean Chiefdom; Ethnicity and Interests at the 1990 the Federated States of Micronesia Constitutional Convention; and Lost in the Weeds: Theme and Variation in Pohnpei Political Mythology. In 2009 the University of Hawaii Press published his Traditional Micronesian Societies: Adaptation, Integration, and Political Organization.