Veteran’s Day: Reflections on War and Service

I didn’t intend to think about Veteran’s Day/WWI Armistice Day. In this town the big question is whether my friends have the day off or not (non-profits go by their own rules regarding federal holiday). Like most federal holidays, this day feels hollow, not hallowed. Yet my teacher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy often notes that a culture’s values are evident in its calendar.

What I Saw in America is a blog of “Tocquvillean Thoughts” by Georgetown Political Science Professor Patrick Deneen. For Veteran’s Day Prof. Deneen highlights a current Georgetown undergrad who joined the Army after 9/11 and published valuable reflections in Sunday’s Washington Post. Young veteran’s at top universities today, opposed to pre-1968, are challenged by the obliviousness of civilian life to warfare. Deneen writes:

The change in our college culture reflects a deeper change in the culture at large: as we have become ever more consumers, and ever less citizens, the reasons for military service have ceased to be a serious consideration. What were once seen as among the primary forms of human excellence, or virtues – duty, patriotism, self-sacrifice – are now seen as ways of living that might be borne by unfortunate sops. Our meritocratic age has no space for such animating virtues: our motivations are now success (defined materially and financially) and self-fulfillment.

Although I come from a military family, I’m more a child of the post-Vietnam liberal mindset that sees one’s “service” valuable for the oppressed, not for the military. But I’m anti-consumerist and support the cultivation of virtues for the common good. Therefore, those who still believe in that kind of patriotism tug at my comfortable worldview.

The fact that my father served in the Air Force for 20 years and did a tour of duty in Vietnam has always colored my identity. My parents met at an officers dance in Biloxi, MS. Mom was working with the Red Cross. I was born at an Army base in San Antonio. It was common for kids in my Maryland schools to be military, too. In some ways, the institution of the military contributed to the multicultural middle class environment that I valued. In my area of Maryland, Filipino military families were especially common.

I was still in high school during the 1991 Gulf War. While studying at a liberal Jewish lobby office, I gathered to watch the the Senate debate and vote on war authorization. The staff was anxious about war while aware of the threat to Israel. The radio alerted me the night Israel was first bombed. I cried in my car. My wonderful non-Jewish girlfriend reassured me with her hand on mine. The one activist teacher I encountered before college taught US History. According to my memory she did not condemn US imperialism as she might have wanted. Instead, Ms. Hanson brought in the local radio news to record our discussion about the war. Several times Ms. Hanson allowed my friend Cindy, worried everyday about her father, an army Colonel and combat commander, to share his photos and letters with the class. Back then war felt real because we were “of age” and within a larger military environment. Current military operations feel very distant.

I was in favor of US military involvement in the Balkans in the 1990s though I would’ve liked a greater discussion of how to support the democratic, non-violent forces in the region. We could have learned the “new face of war,” nation-building, from the Kosovo experience and the challenges of multi-party negotiations from the Dayton Accords. But our Iraq invasion came in March 2003 with few of those lessons well-integrated. I wasn’t anti-war in 2002/3 because I felt the administration had decided after the initial success in Afghanistan that Iraq would be next. End of story. There’s a cartoon satire of President Johnson listening to the protesters (Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids have you killed today?) and getting his feelings hurt. It felt clear to me that protest might feel righteous but not engage with the real issues occurring on the ground. I started following the Iraqi Governing Council and Iraqi Constitution debates.

As much as I’ve tried to research the issue, I can’t really say if this is a World War or a fabricated state of fear. I have come to think that the West is in much greater danger of its own lethargy and demographic trends, and that the world will be better if the West thrives (more on this soon.)

In the absence of clarity, let me end with the following small memory. Eight years ago I led high school students through the Vietnam Memorial and was surprised to find the area buzzing. A man with a guitar sang by the Women’s (Nurse’s) Memorial. I wrote down his lyrics depicting the hope for life that nurses represent to injured soldiers. I’ve retold his message a dozen times since. It turns out over 250,000 women volunteered to serve during the Vietnam era.

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