Friday, November 11, 2011

Honoring veterans

A growing number of businesses offer good deals to veterans on Veterans Day. Offers I’ve seen include many free meals (as if most veterans were underweight!), free car washes, and discounts at some grocery stores. Lowe’s and Home Depot publicize the 10% discount that they give military personnel and their families all year, which is much better than a one-day deal.

However, freebies and discounts, though appreciated, are not how the nation collectively should honor its veterans. If the nation chooses to have a military (and I, for one, believe that defense is an unfortunate necessity – dissenters should remember Hitler, Stalin, and others who sought to impose their particular brand of evil on the world), then the nation should care for those injured in its service. That moral obligation to honor veterans includes veterans who fought in wars to which I have moral objections. The military does not determine national policy but is an instrument of national policy. For better or worse, citizenship in a nation entails communal responsibilities, one of which is active engagement to shape national policy and another of which is honoring the veterans whose duty caused them to implement policies with which they may or may not have agreed.

Disproportionate numbers of the physically maimed, the unemployed, the homeless, and alcoholics are veterans. Many of these veterans suffer invisible wounds, i.e., psychic or spiritual injuries that interfere with the veteran living a normal, healthy life. As a retired chaplain and priest, veterans sometimes honor me by telling me their stories. The injuries are real, the horrors of war brought home from the battlefield. Sometimes the vet knows when and how the injury occurred; sometimes the injury manifests itself in unexpected ways years after the person has returned home. Timothy Kudo, in “On War and Redemption” (New York Times, November 8, 2011), described his experience as an injured vet, having ordered his Marines to kill persons that both he and his Marines thought were armed aggressors only to discover that the individuals were unarmed and killed needlessly.

My previous post, What the Church, and our nation, owe veterans, outlined how I think the nation should honor its veterans. On this Veterans Day, in a time of economic distress and social unrest, our obligations to veterans feel especially poignant. If nothing else, perhaps Veterans Day can underscore that one day of special treatment per year, no matter how much appreciated, cannot satisfy our obligations to veterans. Although many of our wars have been wars of choice, fought for reasons of commercial gain rather than moral necessity, this nation would not exist and we would not enjoy the freedoms and rights that we do, no matter how imperfect they may be, without the sacrifices of veterans.

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