After it’s Over, Understanding Veterans Day

Veterans Day is a strange time for me. It’s a day when I feel disconnected from the activities and events happening around me. With all the parades, TV programs, ceremonies and expressions of appreciation for my service, my emotions are a mixture of gratitude, ambivalence and anger.

Veterans Day is a wonderful time to educate and outreach to help vets. It is a perfect opportunity to talk about Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide. It is a day to highlight the 11% unemployment rate among all vets with an astounding 20% rate for Iraq and Afghan war vets. It is a day to support the tens of thousands of homeless veterans across the country. Thankfully much of this is happens every day. But that is not why we have Veterans Day.

There was a time when I appreciated Veterans Day more than I do today. I was younger and less contemplative about my experiences as a soldier and what it meant to serve in the U.S. military. To be clear, I respect the military and the women and men who serve. I know what it is like to make the sacrifices they make every day. I made them. Spending weeks in the field or working late into the night in the motor-pool. There are many tasks, large and small, which soldiers must do  to be ready for the call. This readiness comes at a steep price, time taken from family and friends; time away from living.

Then comes the call. I know what it feels like to deploy, wondering if you will return home alive, and praying that you will see your loved ones again. I remember hugging my young son over 20 years ago before deploying to Iraq for the Gulf War. He is now a veteran himself, who missed his second son’s birth due to deployment in the current Iraq War campaign.

Troops  are taught to fight for honor, valor and to protect our country, but they really fight for each other and to return home to see those they love.

NYC 2005 Veterans Day Parade

If they make it back home, they return changed. Basic training and experiences preparing for war changed them from the kid who left home to the service member with spit-shined boots and freshly pressed uniforms. This change is mostly for the better. But war changes people in a different way. War is domination through deadly violence. It is killing and death. Kill or be killed, or kill to dominate. Soldiers either kill or enable killing. War takes away innocence. Its inhumanity and death orgy challenges morality and respect for life. A few are made stronger. Some are twisted into monsters. Many are personally destroyed and forever scarred.

Knowing and having lived this life, I can feel nothing but love and respect for those in the armed forces. My son, uncles, grandfather and I were them, and now I am a veteran. Eventually, every active soldier either becomes a veteran, or  dies while serving.

My feelings of appreciation spring from my understanding of the experience of moving from solider to veteran. I am happy that the nation acknowledges us and makes an attempt to think about the sacrifices we have made. Many have made sacrifices that by the grace of God I do not face. They live with nightmares beyond imagination. I know some of these men and women. The burden they carry cannot be overstated.

Veterans Day is meant to bind the nation together in honoring the service and sacrifice of the warrior.  It is one of two annual displays of pomp and circumstances, along with Memorial Day, that contribute to the creation of a warrior who understands her purpose; to defend the nation. These days set aside to shower adoration and accolades on these few good men and women create and reinforce this sense of purpose. We declare them the best, and we honor them with parades and monuments. We have established hallowed ground for their lifeless bodies and maintain eternal flames and tombs to remember one lone soldier whose name we do not know. The U.S. Tomb of the Unknowns and the round the clock guard to honor and protect it is a case study in the psychology of creating a sense of purpose. By generating a feeling of grandeur and perpetuity to venerate unknown soldiers, service members and veterans place themselves as the Unknown believing that they will live on forever as a heroic figure; the protector of the American dream.

The tomb is a sacrosanct space, a kind of altar for those who are being protected to visit and pay homage. It reminds the individual citizen of the sacrifices paid. These evoked feelings help to solidify ties between citizens. The soldier died for me, they died for our country. The veteran served for me, they served for our country.

The warrior’s purpose is to protect the larger group. The warrior must see the larger group or the protection of it worth the service and possible ultimate sacrifice. The group must believe itself worth the possible death of the warrior so that it will send its sons and daughters to the horrors of war. This meaning is provided by a sense of identity. Every nation or people develop a narrative that provides an identity. This identity sets the group apart from the “other” and binds the group members together and on whole, demands subservience to the will of the group for the glory of the group. I am drawn to ambivalence by the reality of this process. It is the same for al Qaeda, the Taliban, Palestinians, Israelis, Canadians or the Brits. It appears to be very human.

But I am angered when I answer, what is the glory of America for which I and others served and so many have died? I am told I served and fought to preserve our values and keep us free. But on closer examination it is something quite different. I was sent to fight Saddam Hussein, a tyrant who the U.S. supported in spite of his brutality and use of chemical weapons on civilian Kurds. As long as he followed U.S. orders anything he did was fine. Relationships and politics change, so I was sent to crush him. In the wake of 9-1-1 my son was sent to occupy Iraq, a nation that had nothing to do with that tragic day and to search for weapons of mass destruction that were not there. Our nation justifies torture, indefinite detention, assassinations, displaces millions and drops bombs that kill innocents all in the name of national security. U.S. soldiers were sent to occupy Viet Nam killing over a million people to stop communism, ignoring Vietnamese’s overtures for friendship and their historical struggle of independence ensuring they would never be lapdogs of the Chinese or the Americans. None of this reflects my values.

Here at home the democratic beliefs our government claims I have helped defend and spread are under attack. The right to assemble and our ability to organize are being suppressed. Police are using guns, teargas, beanbags and batons on peaceful protesters. Voting rights are being curtailed. The poor and middle-class are being asked to pay and sacrifice more while opportunities shrink. The American dream is turning into a nightmare as national and personal debts pile up.

All the while the U.S. military juggernaut grinds on powered by the blood, bones and sanity of those who serve.  We are treated as pawns in a game that benefits the rich. The poor and working class of America fighting the poor and working class of the world to forward policy goals that increase the fortune and influence of the rich. In the midst of global suffering and domestic strife a small number get richer on the backs and sacrifices of everyone else.

Veterans Day is a strange time for me because I know that the ceremonies, parades and honors are meant to lead me down a path of blind patriotism. It is an attempt to unite my perceived interest with those of the rich and powerful masquerading as champions of freedom and justice. It is an effort to bond my identity with beliefs and polices that forward their goals but are not good for me, my family, my country or the world on which I depend. I served my country because I love it. Not to gain access to foreign markets or dominate the world. I love my country because of the ideals I was taught it stands for. I grew up and found out that my nation is far from the perfect union it strives to be or the champion of freedom it claims to be. My love for this nation demands I force it to be better and do better. Next Veterans Day I hope more people think about that and maybe, just maybe, we will be a little closer to domestic and global peace and tranquility; with fewer sacrifices and less war.


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About Michael T. McPhearson

Currently Michael is executive director of Veterans For Peace and co-chair of the Don't Shoot Coalition, A Saint Louis based coalition that formed in the aftermath of Michael Brown's police killing death in Ferguson, MO. From August 2010 to September 2013, Michael worked as the National Coordinator with United For Peace and Justice. He is a former board member of Veterans For Peace and as well as Executive Director from 2005 to 2010. He works closely with the Newark based People’s Organization for Progress and the Saint Louis centered Organization for Black Struggle. Michel also publishes the expressing his views on war and peace, politics, human rights, race and other things. Michael also launched website as an effort to change the discourse and ignite a new conversation about Dr. Martin Luther King’s message and what it means to live in just and peaceful communities.