Over the last several weeks, I have been thinking about Veterans Day (really Armistice Day) and, as a veteran myself, what I might write about veterans on this day. The specifics of a subject escaped me until I opened my email this morning and found a message from TomDispatch about America’s addiction to war and what that means to veterans. The article, entitled, “The Intolerable Price You Pay” was written by Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug, who is a civilian and professor of religion at Moravian University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
After reading Tom Engelhardt's introduction to the article, I immediately read this from Denton-Borhaug:
“As Americans, all of us are, in some sense, linked to the violence of war. But most of us have very little understanding of what it means to be touched by war. Still, since the events of September 11, 2001, as a scholar of religion, I’ve been trying to understand what I’ve come to call “U.S. war-culture.” For it was in the months after those terrible attacks more than 20 years ago that I awoke to the depth of our culture of war and our society’s pervasive militarization. Eventually, I saw how important truths about our country were concealed when we made the violence of war into something sacred. And most important of all, while trying to come to grips with this dissonant reality, I started listening to you, the veterans of our recent wars, and simply couldn’t stop.”
I knew at once I was going to like her article. As I read on, I found that more and more of her statements mirrored mine, some of which I have written on this site during the past 15 years. I went on to read this:
"Worse yet, most Americans refuse to face our national reality. Instead, they twist such truths into something else entirely. They distance themselves from you by labeling you “heroes” and the “spine of the nation.” They call war’s work of death the epitome of citizenship. They don’t want to know how often and how deeply you were afraid; how conflicted you were about life-and-death decisions you had to make when no good choice was available. They don’t want to hear, as one veteran said recently in my presence, that too often your lives “were dealt with carelessly.”
Seven years ago, I wrote about this “hero” stuff in my article, “Veterans Day And Thanking Veterans”:
"Much of our "thanking the troops" comes in the way of concerts, downtown parades and ceremonies at the local city hall or cemetery. These days, sports teams at all levels have boarded the "thank the troops" bandwagon and fill pre-game and half-time shows with military jet flyovers, unfurling huge flags, playing martial music or honoring particular veterans while the fans roar and the cheerleaders wiggle their butts and scream, "Yay, troops!" The announcer, to much applause, may then speak of our "heroes." But might I suggest that the blanket referral to veterans as "heroes" should stop. I hear it a lot nowadays and it always makes me uncomfortable, not because there aren't veterans who are combat heroes, but because the term is used so broadly it loses meaning and trivializes the notion. If you were to go into any VFW hall or other gathering of veterans and ask all the heroes to stand up, you would most likely get blank stares. Going to a war zone or being shot at is not heroic in and of itself, as most soldiers see that as merely doing their duty. We do them more honor if we engage them in conversation about their service than if we place them on a pedestal. Pedestals create distance. On the other hand, I must point out that the struggles many of these veterans have after returning home truly are heroic in nature, but I wonder how many people who have no connection to military service understand that particular version of heroism."
Several months after I returned from Vietnam, a close woman friend took me to see the movie “M*A*S*H.” I sat dumbfounded among the theater-goers who were laughing and clapping. They had never actually seen, as I and other veterans had, the bloodied wounded on stretchers being taken off helicopters and rushed into a surgical hospital*. Where was the film's humor? My friend had no clue and I did not yet have the means to explain. Denton-Borhaug captures this chasm between the civilian populace and the soldier:
“These dynamics silence the truths you carry within you. I’ve heard you say that you often find it impossible to tell the rest of us, even family members, what really happened. You struggle with feelings of alienation from civilian culture, unable to express your anger or describe your struggles with deep-seated shame, guilt, resentment, and disgust.”
I wrote about my return from Vietnam several years ago on the 50th anniversary of my “homecoming,” a ridiculous euphemism that suggests celebration after a football game, not after a war.
“Sitting on the curb outside the terminal [Oakland Airport] I watched the people greeting friends and family. Laughing and enjoying the sunny day. Did they not know that there was a war on? How could they be so insouciant? Twenty-four hours earlier I had been in a combat zone. I was astounded. Baffled. Visiting my uncle in Berkeley a few days later, I knocked on his door and he welcomed me with a wary, ‘I suppose you don’t want to talk about it.’ ”
Unfortunately, I did not talk about "IT" except with fellow veterans and always with a gallows humor, like a Navy SEAL I once encountered in My Tho in the Mekong Delta who joked to me over steak and beer about a particular sort of land mine by calling them “toe poppers.” He told me his “war stories.” But he only talked about what happened, never about what either of us were feeling as he relived them. (Make no mistake. I was an intelligence officer not an infantryman but I cannot unsee what I saw or unhear what I heard or unbury my friends.)
I am grateful to Dr. Benton-Borhaug for her contribution to helping us all better understand the veterans' plight. I urge all of you who have read this far to read the entirety of her article at TomDispatch.