It wasn’t supposed to be this way; wasn’t meant to be celebrated as such – as Veterans’ Day, that is. When the guns fell silent after more than four years of slaughter in the Great War – which consumed at least 9 million soldiers’ lives – in a widely celebrated, long-awaited armistice, veterans, and even many leaders, swore off war once and for all. Sure lots of the Wilsonian rhetoric of war "to end all wars," was probably always hyperbolic and politically opportunistic. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable how many veterans and victims of that war truly believed it, were even dedicated to ensure this was so.
Thus, until the Second World War shattered those expectations, and governments around the world then waged near endless wars in the half century afterwards, the Americans, and other peoples celebrated the anniversary of the Great Wars’ end as Armistice Day. By it’s very nature, it was, then, imbued with meaning, with hopes, dreams, demands for a more peaceful future. Here in the U.S. those sentiments are long gone. Their morbid obituary America’s 19+ years of hopeless wars since 9/11. What we’re left with is a rebranded shell of a holiday: Veterans’ Day.
In the 101 years since the Armistice took effect, on the eleventh minute, of the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918, the US military has been at war somewhere – even by conservative measures – all but eleven of those years. That pesky number eleven, how it haunts us still. Most Americans may find that statistic shocking, or, in some cases, might simply reject it. And why not? Much of the citizenry learned the nation’s history, taught (at increasingly paltry levels) in public schools. Too often they’re trained to reflexively view the US as a once flawed, but ultimately great – exceptional, even – country. Those pugnacious stats can’t be accurate, many assume, because after all, America isn’t an empire, isn’t a warlike nation. Even in this so-called modern age, such thinking is shockingly pervasive.
Of course, as I’ve sought to demonstrate in my 38-volume history series at Truthdig, the discomfiting reality is that America was founded as a once, always, and (it seems) future empire. Warfare has been and remains endemic in the national experiment from the first. Lots of Native Americans, Mexicans, and slaves had to die or be displaced to reach the dream of "from sea to shining sea." Then, in the century and score since the frontier "closed," a whole lot of (mostly) brown folks had to be killed, colonized, exploited, and repressed by U.S.-backed dictators in order to secure the resources, markets, and global hegemony thought necessary for what’s come to be known as "The American Way of Life."
To be sure, those who summarily reject this rather basic – and demonstrable – analysis, probably take no exception to Veterans’ Day as currently constructed. If one truly believes the myth that US troopers only fight – as the official Marine Corps hymn asserts – "for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean," then there’s nothing wrong with simply thanking a brave vet this November 11. On the other hand, if one does accept that war has been a regular fact of American life, but sees that as inevitable – a product of human nature – then the current holiday seems just fine, as well. However, I, in solidarity with the "Lost Generation," of American and British veterans of a century past – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Graves, and Sassoon – spurn both absurd fairy tales and fatalistic cynicism.
Conflict may, indeed, be one aspect of the human condition. Yet in a world of organized societies, and living in our ostensible democracy, there is actually nothing inevitable about America fighting foreign wars. It may seem that way, of course, and there are sensible reasons why it does. The post-World War II entrenchment of the powerful nexus of senior military and defense industry leaders – later abetted by congressional apathy and a corporate media – the military-industrial complex, undoubtedly presents a formidable foe. Nevertheless, people power, grassroots activism, and substantial changes in voting patterns (for third parties or truly transformation insurgents within existing parties) can be, at their best, up to the considerable challenge.
It won’t be easy, of course. The odds are stacked in the favor of elite interests which seek to protect both the power and wealth generated in the current national security state structure. Yet one need only observe the vehemence and alarmism of the Hillary Clinton-New York Times alliance’s unsubstantiated attacks on Tulsi Gabbard’s character and patriotism. The very hysteria of it, especially directed at such a long shot candidate, stank of fear – pure, unadulterated fear for the interventionist status quo. Tulsi’s service and continued donning of the army uniform didn’t, and won’t, save her. Here is proof positive of that which some of us always suspected: all the compulsory, over the top, adulation of veterans – encouraged by national security leaders, of course – is ultimately so much humbug, a sham, a charade.
Certainly many private citizens mean well, might be sincere in their thanks, but even the best among them are being had; victims of a very old scheme. That is the re-appropriation of public holidays for political ends, to protect powerful interests. The whole Armistice/Veterans’ Day transition is perhaps the most potent, and overt, example. After ditching the draft, thereby disconnecting service from citizenship, next sucking all the hope, idealism, and meaning out of the original Armistice Day, and then repackaging the holiday as a simple, reflexive exercise in vapid "thanks," the national security state cleverly narrows the space for dissent. It amounts to a tactical employment of language as power – in a rather Orwellian vein – to covertly undermine opposition.
Although, much to the chagrin of my mainstream liberal colleagues, I don’t fully subscribe to the notion that Trump (while quite dangerous) is a wholly unique aberration, I’m quite certain these times of ours are momentous and potentially catastrophic. A century and year after the Great War Armistice, with the US military killing, dying, and bankrupting the nation in a couple dozen wars, and with the growing power of successive imperial presidents reaching its logical endpoint of foreign policy dictatorship, America simply can’t afford to celebrate another anodyne Veterans’ Day. Not this time, not this year. With that, I conclude with two specific pleas for two very different groups.
First, what’s needed instead is a vast, collective public pause this 11th of November; an occasion to think, really think on, and critically analyze the cost-benefit calculus of the forever wars. The moment demands a reappraisal of what it truly means to honor veterans, new methods that might include citizen engagement in foreign affairs, demands that their representatives adhere to, and act on, the prudent maxim that soldiers ought only be deployed for actual national defense. In such a transformative context, some might conclude that properly honoring veterans has less to do with yellow ribbons, stadium-sized flags, and the ubiquitous airing of patriotic war movies on TBS, than with an insistence on policies that help create fewer of them. That’s my plea to the civilian citizenry.
Next, I turn to my own tribe: active servicemen and combat veterans. This gets tricky. After all, our community is not a social, cultural, or political monolith, and far be it from me to even pretend to speak for the lot. Rather, I simply wish to encourage, perhaps persuade, my brothers and sisters in arms. If the scores of texts I receive, and hundreds of social media messages of support that come my way from veterans and active soldiers be any measure, then it seems many of you are dubious, skeptical, even downright opposed to these nearly two decade old wars.
For example, upon publication of my last article on the inauspicious futures awaiting a new crop of West Point graduates this spring, I received more than a dozen – often quite emotional – notes from former students. These young, motivated lieutenants ought to be, traditionally speaking, the most guns ho of all. Instead, each and every one expressed varying degrees of uncertainty, doubt, and even dissent about the wars they’re fighting or will fight. For the empirically minded, check out the quite profound recent polls indicating that nearly two-thirds of post-9/11 veterans think the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, were "not worth fighting." Suffice it to say, I find all of that rather remarkable.
An enormous amount has been asked of our generation of veterans. You, we, know that it’s our skin in the game; that our tiny clan will be asked to bear all the burdens. That’s an enormous weight, a sacrifice. But with it comes power. See, decades worth of polls which demonstrate that the US military (sadly) is the only remaining public institution the populace trusts. Which is why the dissenting voices of veterans or – more riskily – serving soldiers, if combined and widespread, possess enormous potential to put a dent in the forever wars.
Remember that soldiers’ and officers’ oaths are to the Constitution, not to an imperial, unchecked presidency – whether led by a "coarse" Trump or "polite" Obama – but to a governing document that demands that the People, through their representative in Congress, sanction the inevitable, horrendous bloodletting that it is war. That hasn’t happened, not for decades really. These are not normal times: perpetual war has gathered an inertia all its own whilst the three pillars off the US government – Congress, Courts, Executive – have failed the people; have either enabled or turned a blind eye to perpetual war. So, my last plea is to the powerful veterans of America: help lead the citizenry to end these toxic wars. It might just be the last, and best, service you lend your country.
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"War is the health of the state." ~ Randolph Bourne (1918)
I’ve sure found a home here at Antiwar.com! It’s not simply that they provide me a platform to write and dissent, also because the site is a uniquely broad, cross-sectional, and welcome intellectual gathering place for like-minded antiwar champions. See, it’s about ideology and consistency. Antiwar.com was against endless war before it was cool, before the 9/11 attacks even.
It is fitting, indeed, this 11th of November, to recall that this ever-more-vital non-profit, small donor-reliant organization, is associated with an institute named for the prescient, if tragic, anti-World War I activist, Randolph Bourne. Bourne courageously opposed an unnecessary, exceptionally bloody absurdity of that war – which might aptly be labeled collective national suicide – and as such would find America’s current holiday remembrance, Veterans’ Day, absolutely abhorrent.
Combat veterans and antiwar activists alike emerged, in wake of the armistice ending the slaughter, deeply imbued with the hope – determination even – that theirs be the last war. Armistice Day, as the holiday was long known, was about so much more than vacuous "thanks" for veterans. That day was sacred to those who fought it, and those who opposed it, alike – inherently steeped, as it was, with a rather political meaning, the expectantly realized dream of a more peaceful world.
Tragically, war instead proved endemic, especially for post-World War II America. Pervasive war has since morphed into perpetual war. We live in a world subsumed in the crisis of U.S. wars that take on an inertia all their own. This much I’m certain of: in such times, Americans must reclaim Armistice Day’s original dream, and antiwar.com, uniquely, has – in symbol and action – championed that very cause for a quarter of a century.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen