Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Veterans Day

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, the war to end all wars, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Four years of war had seen 16 million killed and another 20 million other casualties. The scale of death in WWI exceeded anything previously experienced or even contemplated, a magnitude of tragedy made possible by mechanization and massed armies.

Less than 25 years later, World War II had begun, a war with an even great toll. Since then, humans have fought fewer wars and those wars have had far fewer deaths and casualties.

Post-Korea, the United States changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day in recognition of the millions of men and women who have served, and some of whom are still serving, in the nation’s armed forces.

The military does not decide what wars to fight. From the perspective of Christian ethics, the nation should fight only as a last resort, only when victory is possible, and only when victory has a reasonable prospect for moving the world closer to genuine peace.

Honoring veterans is therefore appropriate despite the ugly and inconvenient truth that many of the nation’s wars are morally problematic. We best honor veterans in three ways:

1.      By fighting only moral wars;

2.      By caring for warriors and their families, especially wounded warriors, including those warriors with physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds;

3.      By maintaining a strong defense, but a defense that is no larger than absolutely necessary to defend the nation and its ideas (the nation gains more from redirecting any expenditure above that minimum to other uses).

Using those criteria, we have a very poor record of accomplishment of honoring veterans. We find praying for veterans, offering glib verbal expressions of thanks, and giving veterans discounts in restaurants and stores more palatable. I support all of those efforts. My point is not that we should cease those activities but that those efforts are collectively insufficient to honor veterans genuinely and appropriately.

When I lived in London and worked with the Royal Navy, I was amazed at the importance given to Veterans Days observances, which still centered on WWI fatalities. Between one in ten and one in twelve people who lived in the United Kingdom died in WWI, a staggering death rate that literally changed the nation. We Americans should be thankful that we have never experienced similar high casualty rates.

However, U.S. veterans are three times more likely to be homeless than are non-veterans. Veterans also have substantially higher rates of many other problems (PTSD, alcoholism, etc.). The true cost of war is not measured primarily in terms of dollars but in terms of extinguished or ruined lives. I challenge you, this year, to honor veterans by becoming part of the solution to these problems, encouraging our leaders to rely on military force only as a last resort and only when likely to make the world a better place.


Ted said...

egathrtAll of this is very true; but no church or group is actively protesting using our troops in wars that have no benefit to anyone except those making profits from the war. To see all types of organizations helping those after they return is such hypocrisy. Why not be active in keeping them home or is it because there no monetary gain from being peaceful.

George Clifford said...

Ted, Like you, I'm disturbed by the absence of anti-war protests. As long as the nation can fights wars on the margins - that is, without involving most of the nation - I'm afraid that anti-war protests/activists will be few and far between. Humans have an innate tendency to focus on self and on those closely connected to self (the original roots of reciprocal altruism). When this focus harms others, the Church correctly names the problem sin.

Ken Bowles said...

Thank you for a great blog. We Veterans have difficulty returning to civilian life, especially those who were in combat. I am a non-combatant VietNam veteran (I served in Europe) and still have dreams of friends who did fight in VietNam and never returned home.
I live in the Philippines now along with 132,000 other ex-pat's, most of whom (probably better than 75%) are Veterans. When I go to the VA OPC in Manila, I meet some Korean Veterans, many VietNam veterans, and a few from the Gulf Wars. Living in a foreign country is the only way many of us can live and not be homeless.
Kenneth Bowles

George Clifford said...

Ken, Thanks for the comment and further insights on the plight of veterans.

Марко Фрисланд said...

Hi George, I am a 100% disabled Army veteran. You observed that many veterans experience physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds. This is true in my case. I am what one might best describe as a fairly progressive person in terms of theology and politics. I was amazed and saddened that a very verbal and angry group of parishoners were quite hard on me at a parish coffe hour (this was in what one might consider a liberal parish) when I came back to the U.S.A. from a deployment. I am shy to begin with. And I have P.T.S.D. So after a while, I left that parish. I wasn't angry. I didn't have the energy for that. But I felt a hurt that cut me to the core. I never got over the embarrassment and humiliation of that event I don't want to be thanked or have my service recognized or discussed. I left the U.S.A. for a while, but I come back to the U.S.A. for part of the year. Living in Eastern Europe helped ceate a safe, psycholgical distance for me. Also, there is no "religious right" there. I find the media presence of the American "religous right" quite disturbing. It seems like some of the most hawkish people never served (and none of their family members served). Now in person I am very careful about disclosing my military history. I feel like I should be a pacifist. But I cannot stand by while someone is being victimized. I would use force to defend someone being abused on a sidewalk in my hometown. I would, if able, go to war to defend our country if we were attacked. Perhaps I don't understand pacifism. I certainly can't claim to know right and wrong in every complex situation. I do disagree with preemptive war. I think waterboarding is a form of torture. And I don't believe any leader from any country is exempt from the Nuremberg precedents. This might make some recent leaders uncomfortable. I don't rubber stamp everything our presidents and other elected officials decide. We are made in God's image. Jesus felt "esplagknisthe" (literally "compassion in his guts"). I think that many combat veterans have psychological problems because acts of violence and killing are so alien to the image of God in humanity. Perpetrating violence is diametrically opposed to human, God-given empathy. People cannot endure these intense and painful conflicts. I think this is why the military suicide rate is so high. By the way, most of the war monuments in Europe are from WWI. I don't think Europeans quite got over that war and were still freaked out by it when WWII came about. It is eerie to walk qround the former, now silent battle fields in France and imagine what happened there. I get the same feeling at Gettysburg. I fear for this current generation of veterans.

George Clifford said...

Марко, Thanks for your comment; I find your sentiments profoundly Christian.