Veterans’ Day Now and In Years to Come
Coming up later this week is Veterans’ Day, a day of reflection and demonstration of appreciation for the efforts and sacrifices of our military personnel. Right now, there are thousands of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine men and women stationed across and globe ostensibly defending our nation against threats posed by other nations and terrorist groups. Many are in harm’s way in combat zones (whether they are officially designated as such or not). Unlike Memorial Day, this holiday honors the living current and former service members as well as those who have fallen in combat.
Honoring our service members means different things to different folks, both inside and outside of government. The phrase “Support Our Troops” is a good illustration of this. Some seem to feel supporting our soldiers in time of war means unquestioning allegiance to the policies of our government during such times. Others think that under some circumstances, the best way to support our troops is to not engage in combat to begin with, or at least to stop when it becomes apparent that the war is not accomplishing its stated purpose.
The current areas where our troops are deployed and serving in the most dangerous conditions seem to be Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, Syria. Our involvement in those countries has been controversial for years, both at home and abroad. Initial involvement in Afghanistan was met with a great degree of public approval, coming on the heels of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in this country and the connection with training camps located in Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq, though popular at first, gradually lost its luster when the stated reasons for conducting the operation (weapons of mass destruction) turned out to be overblown or downright false. Syria seems to be a case where our leaders are intent on regime change in a civil conflict that has persisted for years with many casualties and the creation of a multitude of refugees driven from their homes. The quagmire also involves numerous other militant groups, including ISIS and elements of the military forces of most of the nations in the region.
Regardless of the political or humanitarian value of these and every other military adventure undertaken by our country throughout its history, most of us have valued the willingness of men and women to participate in what they see as the defense of their country and the way of life we enjoy here. When differences of opinion as to the validity of the politics involved arise, the individual sacrifices and efforts put forth by the service members are properly commended by most of us. Most believe that, when we are involved in armed conflict or striving to avoid it from a position of strength, we must ensure that our people have the weapons and defenses necessary for them to successfully carry our their mission.
The biggest disconnect in the “Support Our Troops” rhetoric comes after actual combat ceases for the individual soldier. Often, those politicians most eager to put our troops in harm’s way in pursuit of achieving some political goal or defend us from a threat (real or imagined), will go all out in making sure the Pentagon is given the arms and ammunition to carry out the mission without regard to the cost. The only time they seem to care about the price tag is after the war is over and it comes time to take care of repairing the damage to the people directly involved. Often, that is the time veterans and others among the impoverished, the aged, children and workers are asked to sacrifice in the form of austerity in order to pay costs incurred in the war by cutting programs that benefit them, while avoiding asking the wealthiest (who have benefitted the most from the conflict) to pay their fair share.
The most ardent supporters of spending mega-billions on new and improved planes, ships, tanks, missiles and all the other tools of the combat trade suddenly become cost-conscious in the extreme when it comes to funding the VA Medical system or ensuring that jobs and training are available for transitioning from military to civilian life. Part of the problem, I believe, is that our military has become significantly different than it was prior to the end of the draft after the Vietnam War. The all-volunteer force has meant that far fewer people from middle and upper socio-economic backgrounds have become involved in joining the military. While some former military members do become involved in the political process, they are far outnumbered by those whose adult lives have not become inexorably altered by their military experience.
The fact that our military is now comprised entirely of individuals who volunteer instead of being conscripted (forget for the moment the notion of economic reasons for joining, or the fact that the military is one arena in our society where advancement is available for many who may never see such opportunity outside of it) means that our military forces are composed of a much smaller subset of our citizens than used to be the case during the two World Wars, Korea or Vietnam. As unfair as the draft was during Vietnam (who can forget all the chicken hawks in Congress and the Bush Administration during the run-up to the Iraq invasion who got multiple deferments for various reasons and never had to serve even with the draft), the draft did force many people to participate who otherwise might have preferred not to. Now a smaller segment of our society serves. Repeat tours of duty to multiple battlefields affect many more profoundly than was the case in wars of shorter duration in the past. Fewer individuals are directly involved in combat. The ability of the vast majority of the population to relate to the very different life experiences of the service members becomes strained as well.
Now, as we reflect on the very different experiences of veterans from the past 70-odd years of warfare and peacetime military service still living in our society, we need to realize that justice means we owe them more than many of our austerity promoting war mongers willingly admit. Some of the biggest political advocates for supporting our troops are also among those who are the most likely to oppose the wars they have been sent to fight in. Being willing to send other people or their children to risk their lives in ways that you studiously avoid for yourselves and yours does not say so much about your patriotism as does your willingness and ability to ensure that such sacrifice is kept to a minimum and that those who do participate are adequately cared for upon completion of their service.
We need to appreciate the efforts of those who served in our military, whether they saw actual combat or not. Their willingness to serve knowing what it could potentially cost them is commendable in and of itself. The goal, of course, is ultimately to reach the point where creating new veterans is no longer necessary. That cannot happen so long as so many of those in positions of power choose to seek solution to differences through force and violence rather than negotiations. The telling point in US history on this point was after World War II, when the Department of War was changed to the Department of Defense. I don’t believe we’ve fought anything approaching a defensive war since. That includes especially the ones we are in the process of deciding whether or not to escalate now or contemplate starting in the not-too-distant future. I’d rather vote for someone like Bernie Sanders who voted against starting the Iraq War but has fought hard in his years in Congress to advocate on behalf of veterans than someone who supported that war and subsequently fought tooth and nail to save money by denying them their due benefits.
Bottom line for me in this is – Don’t start a war you aren’t willing to pay for. Don’t create a veteran you are unwilling to reintegrate into civilian society and provide with the necessary health care (including mental health) and other tools they need to become well-adjusted members of the society and nation they spent so much time and effort to defend. Furthermore, don’t send other people’s sons and daughters to their deaths to protect those who are permitted and encouraged to refuse to serve or even to deny responsibility for paying their fair share in the defense of the society they benefit from living in.