How Veterans Day Became a Farce

My children brought home the Scholastic News from school on Friday. For those who don’t know, it’s “America’s Leading News Source for Kids.” Its weekly editions are typically led by a theme, and students are encouraged to complete the exercises within. This one caught my eye: “Hi I’m Joe, I am a veteran. That means I was in a war. Meet my dog Benjamin. I’ll show you how he helps me everyday.”

On the front is a heartbreaking photo of a Marine with a “robot leg” in a wheelchair, his arm slung over a beautiful golden retriever. Inside, after more photos of the veteran and Benjamin, and the veteran and his young family, my child is asked, “how can we thank (soldiers)? … we can send them a care package!”

How about demanding they all come home now, legs intact? I think about this ruefully for a moment and realize that I had spent much of Veterans Day looking at photos of amputees. The Washington Post heralded the day with a front-page profile of Marine Cpl. Todd A. Nicely, an “unbroken spirit,” and one of three living men who lost all four of their limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan. There are 1,100 amputees from these wars overall, according to the paper. We are so used to seeing them now, literally running marathons, swimming in the Paralympics, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. And they are all but ubiquitous on Memorial and Veterans Day – the two days Americans are forced to think about war.

But let’s face it, there is something insidious about it all, about what Veterans Day has become. We channel all of our compassion and guilt and patriotism into individual veterans and their stories of recovery and triumph, but we never ask the fundamental “why?” In fact, we try not to focus too much on the subject of war itself (unless it is in the form of watching 24 hours straight of propagandistic war films on Turner Classic Movies, or the usual War Porn on the History Channel). With all the best intentions, we talk about veterans in schools, but without explaining, even prudently, how a beautiful boy like 26-year-old Nicely came to be wheeling around with a mechanical arm and three stumps for limbs on the front of Thursday’s newspaper. That he had been “defending our country” seems to suffice. He and others persevere, selflessly, despite hardship and pain, so buck up, so can you – that is implicit – as is some unspoken rule that one must not debate the necessity of war on Veterans’ Day, lest you offend “the veterans.”

Therefore we never really move forward. We just remain mired in our own lessons lost, every year pouring perfume in the form of platitudes and pity over our most disturbing realities.

Veterans Day used to be Armistice Day, which was first established in 1919 to remember the 117,965 Americans who died fighting in World War I, the first senseless war of the 20th Century. Later in 1938, it was declared a federal holiday and dedicated in part to “to the cause of world peace.” But the return of millions of World War II veterans soon overshadowed the quiet reflection of the previous war, and in 1954 it was officially changed to Veterans Day to honor the living symbols of what is still deemed an historic American victory in the great planetary struggle against Evil. Rituals and expectations then hardened, and were further institutionalized after Korea and Vietnam, when sacrifice had to be emphasized over victory, when our guilt and regret over the 36,515 American dead in Korea, and 58,159 in Vietnam, needed to be channeled, somehow.

The veterans of those wars required the pomp and the reassurance more than their World War II predecessors, and that left no room for rehashing controversial war policies. Younger men marched (and wheeled) with the World War II vets as part of one proud collective and saved their complaints and lamentations for later at the American Legion bars dotting the Middle American landscape. “Civilians” acted accordingly and generally observed the day, as we do now, gathering at monuments and parades, and speaking no ill of war.

How easy it is today, nearly 10 years into a two-front conflict that has left us more than two million veterans, to carry on the ritual. More than ever, we are compelled to treat these men and women as if in a vacuum, divorced from the political reality that they served in a war that has more in common with its darker progenitors, Korea and Vietnam, than World War II. And it is much easier for us, the civilians, to take part in this theater when it is less likely that we would know a vet personally, and when we do see them in the media, particularly on Veterans Day, they are healthy and muscular and engaging in heroic physical feats, despite their mechanical limbs and scarred faces.

They make us feel sad, but in a perverse way, their resolve to “move on” makes us more comfortable about our lemming-like journey through a decade of war, our decision to “go shopping” rather than stop and question with any measure of seriousness the toll it was taking on our country. And forget the corporate media, they’re too terrified of being perceived as anti-military to even suggest messing with the Veterans Day status quo. So they go overboard to ensure the day is sanctified, profiling one amputee after another with no context. Then on Nov. 12 we shake it off and “move on.”

But how is teaching our children that disabled veterans are a fact of life, without offering any greater insight, helping soldiers and veterans, much less anyone else? The soldiers and veterans become American totems, while we condition our children to compartmentalize their emotions – today, children, we will celebrate veterans; we will feel sad for their disabilities and grateful that they fought in our name – and not to ask questions about the most critical issue of our time, which is war: getting into it and getting out of it. Just accept the fact that there are a lot of men and women around who got their robot arms and legs “defending our freedom,” send a care package, and “move on.”

Ten years from now, these same children could be standing in front of an Army recruiter’s office. What real tools have we given them to decide?

Veterans Day as a Decoy

Not surprisingly, there was hardly a grumble of response this Veterans Day when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that we would be fighting in Afghanistan for at least four more years. Nor did anyone seem to blanch at reports that the White House has begun “moving away” from President Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops from there in 2011.

Gen. Petraeus has been suggesting 2014 is the new benchmark for “transition” and is expected to confirm as much at this week’s NATO summit in Lisbon. No doubt the umpteenth “review” of the policy coming up in December will bolster the military’s preferred timeline, which would take the war right through the next presidential election. As I said back in June, Obama would no doubt prefer to stall through 2012, avoiding the “defeat-o-crat” mantra from his Republican opponents, while appearing to listen to “his generals on the ground.” As if to give his blessing, neoconservative war hawk Bill Kristol, donning his military surrogate hat on Fox News Sunday this week, suggested that Obama has finally come over to their way of thinking.

“I think Barack Obama has crossed the bridge in his own mind, he is not interested in an exit strategy during his first term from Afghanistan, he is interested in a success strategy.”

Now Bill “boots on the ground” Kristol is probably the single most effective promoter of the meat grinder outside the Pentagon itself. Whether it be the pre-9/11 push for regime change in Iraq, the Project for the New American Century’s numerous calls to arms, his Weekly Standard soap box, or his new outfit, the Emergency Committee for Israel, Kristol is always promoting war – more war, more warm bodies to fight wars. As a military mouthpiece he is quite good, though no one can say with any certainty how he feels about amputee veterans or the rising number of suicides among active duty soldiers and veterans, nor of the fact the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been the single greatest contributor to the dreaded national debt. He never talks about it, at least not on–air.

But Kristol is good at compartmentalizing too, and he figures the chump mainstream media has the Veterans Day coverage well in hand, and is relieved no doubt that the endless images of military funerals and titanium prosthetics are never emotionally – or rationally – connected with his relentless war mongering over the last decade.

If the rest of America could finally resist the pressure to spend Veterans Day in an intellectual stupor, they might see Kristol & Co. for what they really are. They might recognize them as collaborating with the military and other self-interested parties in Washington to quietly extend this unpopular war for another four years with absolutely no input from the citizenry – what writer Stephen Walt aptly recognizes as the old “Bait and Switch.”

Simply put, Veterans Day and its springtime counterpart, Memorial Day, have become nothing but an institutionalized distraction from the truth. A temporary salve on our conscience, and a decoy for the war-makers.

Ideally, these “holidays” should be used instead to teach our children that we can only truly honor the men and women in the Armed Services by making sure they don’t die senselessly on the battlefield ever again – that our role as “citizen” is to challenge and shape the decisions made by the government, not become a slave to it.

Only then could we look at the photographs of veterans in wheelchairs or with injuries that have rendered them unrecognizable to their families, and say, never forget, never again – and truly mean it.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.