There is something infinitely sad and even repellent about the current celebration of Veterans Day. This was once Armistice Day, the observation of the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day in November, 1918 when the guns fell silent and the great war ended. The war to end all wars.
There is certainly a difference between those veterans who survived a war in defense of their country, and those who took part in a war of aggression. Whatever pacifists may feel about war, there was a purpose for those in the Allied forces in World War II who were defending their countries after they had been attacked. This cannot be said about the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.
The whole veteran thing is complex. War, for those who actually experienced it – who didn't serve their time at a supply base – is hell. I remember, as a child, wondering how any man could get out of the trenches and walk through a field of death with sounds beyond thunder bursting all around. I still don't know. I only know I would never have the courage to do it.
My father, when a visiting pastor at our church assured the men in the congregation who had served in the military that they need not feel burdened by a sense of guilt over what they might have done, since they had only carried out orders from the State, took the pastor aside after the service and, with barely controlled fury, said "Don't you dare tell me that I am not guilty for what I did. I did it because I didn't know what else to do, and only the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ can redeem me for the sins of violence".
Even in the best of good wars what of the men on the losing side, who suffered the same horrors but had no brass bands to welcome them home, no mayors and pastors to bless them? The Nazi side was criminal, but the soldiers in their army – and in the Japanese army – fought with courage and returned home to ruins.
What can we say of those wars in which we had no real national interest? The Vietnamese did not attack us. Iraq posed no national threat, nor did the Afghans. Our men and women fought because they were ordered to. Some – a very small handful of them – enjoyed the violence. Most were terrified or brutalized by it.
What I think of on this day, is that, with the miracle of modern medicine, the men and women who, in other wars would have died from their wounds, now survive, and return without all of their limbs, missing parts of their faces, or brains, facing a life ahead of physical therapy.
It is one thing for me, at 84, to remind myself that, if I want to ease the pains of walking, I need to do prescribed exercises. But how unfair that these youth, who should be returning home to run, to play baseball with their children, to make love with vigor, must instead adjust to artificial arms and legs, to endless painful hours of physical therapy.
Those who saw combat do not return whole. Their dreams reek of death, of comrades torn apart, of foreign children shot by accident.
And we do nothing at all to bring to justice those who sent these men and women into wars which were, in a fundamental sense, unjust. Even in the good wars there is still the memory of an enemy who, in death, turned out to be only an adolescent. In the bad wars – which are the only wars we have fought for some time now – there is the terrible knowledge that the enemy was never really the enemy. That if there is an enemy it is the government that asks us to celebrate the service of the veterans.
Let us honor the veterans – all of them, of any nationality. But remember also that in these wars there are other veterans whose fate is not mentioned by Obama, the mothers in Iraq, the wives in Vietnam, the children in Afghanistan, and all the wounded in distant lands, for whom there is no modern medical science. Only dust, blood and pain.
So our goal, and a goal I suspect I share with a great many veterans, is to work for a world where there are no new veterans and where, perhaps to diminish the chance of such wars, we bring to justice those who so lightly send our young into foreign lands.