It’s Veteran’s Day. Like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, the matter of honoring veterans evokes complicated feelings. I grew up on my dad’s war stories–most of them funny, almost none of them allowing us a sense of the darker side of the war experience. We heard about how he used his coveted leave time to visit antique bookshops in the English villages near the air base. We heard about how be bought and lugged around an iron frying pan in order to prepare his own food on occasion, and how his commander singled him out in the course of a farewell address to the troops: as the story goes, he paused at the end of his remarks to the men, looked around, and asked, “Where’s Chandler?” When Dad waved his hand, the commander looked him in the eye and gave him the parting order, “Chandler, get rid of your junk!” then turned and boarded the plane. It was an endearing story. It didn’t occur to me until later to wonder why all his war stories were crafted for amusement value.
When Dad died at 83, two uniformed veterans came to fold the huge flag they had draped on his coffin and ceremoniously hand it to my mother. By that time, the war that so shaped his coming of age had been superceded by a shameful series of armed conflicts, none of them duly declared, all of them in gross violation of the standards of “just war.” Villages had been strafed and napalmed, civilians tortured and small farms turned into minefields.
Today is set aside to honor the people who participated in those armed conflicts. How do you honor the participants without honoring the enterprise? I am ashamed of the rapacious imperial abuses of power our nation has perpetrated on others, of the unwarranted attacks on civilians, the waste, the brutalizing of the young men and women who are trained to kill. Still, I recognize the courage required to put your body on the line, and to submit to the strenuous physical and mental disciplines the armed services require. Good people died at Gallipoli and at Dunkirk and in the Mekong Delta. And if I think they died in a dubious cause, and that the sacrifices soldiers are making even now in the mountains of Afghanistan are tragically misdirected, and that war will never make us safer or more civilized, I still want to honor the ambiguities that keep me from passing judgment on people who have put themselves through things I would be loath to take on, and who bear, perhaps with as much innocence as any of us capitalist consumers at home, the burden of decisions made in our name but more and more often without our votes.
It’s a good day to remember my first visit to the Viet Nam memorial in Washington, D.C. Walking down along the lengthening list of names, I thought of Macbeth’s bleak line, “and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.” There are better things to say for human endeavor, all of which seems indelibly and perhaps inevitably marked by greed and pride and ambition. For today, I imagine the best way to mark the occasion is to deepen and renew the resolve to pray for and participate in the long project of making the peace we can barely imagine.