Why I can't celebrate Veterans Day
Yesterday, November 11, was Veterans Day. I dId not celebrate. Never do.
We grow up being told we owe our liberty, freedom, our very way of life to the brave veterans of war, and those who gave their lives. And surely there's much to be said for this. Without the soldiers of the American Revolution, the Civil War, WWI and WWII would there even be a nation?
Probably not. And what of these mostly young, mostly men? They've risked and often given all by merely heeding the patriotic call of their nation. All this is true so surely we owe them a great, even unpayable debt.
So that's all on one side of the ledger. But let's push on and look at the other side of the ledger.
When I was 10 or 12, in the thick of the Vietnam War (1967-9) a thought occured to me watching the gruesome evening news with daily body counts and senseless carnage. Surely the Vietcong were just as brave, just a sure they were fighting the good and just fight as our own American boys. Over the years I've thought of this over and over. In the case of Vietnam we Americans were clearly the bad guys. And eventually we got our butts kicked.
But even WWII has the same problem. The rank and file Nazi or Japanese soldier was no less dedicated, no less convinced they were in the right, fighting for the good of their respective homelands than the Soviet, British, Chinese and American soldiers who eventually did prevail.
Confederate soldiers were no less dedicated and fought no less bravely the Union soldiers did. And what of the American Revolution? The colonists were not nearly universal in their opposition to England. Had we lost, or never fought, that war there would still be a great nation here. Just look at Canada. Life is not so bad in Canada.
Soviet soldiers fought bravely and took huge losses saving communism from the Nazis. Had Hitler prevailed surely millions upon millions more would have died in the Soviet lands. But was Stalin any less a monster than Hitler? Not so much as I can tell. Different, yes, but but not less.
Now, sure, in every war, on every side, there are opportunists and mercenaries seeking personal gain from the war. But by far, the vast majority of soldiers are totally patriotic, sincerely convinced they are protecting their own homeland, their own liberty, their own way of life. We the victors may condemn them, but they aren't much different than we. Not really.
This is not to say all sides are morally equivalent. Confederate soldiers were defending slavery. Nazi soldiers, sometimes wittingly sometimes not, enabled one of the worst historic genocides. What of America in the 2nd gulf war? How many innocent Iraqis were slaughtered? How many were tortured in Abu Garib and Guantanamo? How many women and children massacred at My Lai? By patriotic Americans, doing only what their nation asked of them.
No, the winners are far from faultless. Far from it.
What nation has ever emerged without bloodshed? Ukraine emerged after the bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union, but they are paying their dues in blood now.
Among the earliest written narratives are stories of war and conquest. There is good reason to think war was commonplace for millennia before writing, and has surely been continuous, bloody and brutal ever since. War is as human as fire and tool use. The number of wars is impossible to count, they overlap so much.
And in each an every war for 10,000 years nearly all the soldiers on all sides were equally convinced of the justice of their cause. They can not all have right. And seems to me, practically all were just wrong.
So long as men are willing to give their own lives, and the lives of their country men, to settle some grievance, real or imagined, there will be war. Each and every time men resort to violence represents a failure of civilization. You may well preserve your own civilization by fighting back, but in so doing you lay the seeds for the cycle of violence to continue.
More and more I think those dedicated to non-violence, extremists like the Jains and Quakers, have the right idea.
No, I can not celebrate Veterans Day. I am emphatically not with America right or wrong. I have no real solutions to offer either. Was Ukraine to lay down and surrender when Russia invaded? Was Israel to to turn the other cheek when Hamas slaughtered 1400 Israelis, many of them children? No, I'm not surprised when one side retaliates. Russia and Hamas surely have real grievances too. And so does Ukraine and Israel. Fucking everyone harbors grievances it seems.
Maybe, just maybe, we can break the cycle of violence. After all, we've effectively banned some of the worst weapons like chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons have not been banned but we can hope one day to eliminate them entirely. We no longer overtly practice human sacrifice. Maybe one day we'll really mean it when we say Thou Shalt Not Kill. Seems simple enough but you'll hear self-described religious folk make a distinction between killing and murder. War is premeditated murder. That's all.
Well, I have no grievances. I've been very lucky. In no small part due to the sacrifices of American soldiers. Yet I simply cannot celebrate them. Because that only perpetuates war. Which I abhor.