Today is Veteran's Day in the United States. If I recall correctly, it was originally Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, but eventually it got repurposed (probably before there was such as term as "repurposed") as a day to commemorate the efforts and sacrifices of veterans of the US armed services.
I was thinking this morning about the different reactions we have to veterans in the US. Nothing quite as shocking as how some Vietnam veterans are treated (or ignored) by the structures of our society. Rather, thinking that some people feel strongly about honoring our veterans (Lynn Johnston does a strip most years in For Better or For Worse on the subject) and others - such as myself - are indifferent.
I think it's based on the "distance principle": The notion that one person you know is more important to you than a million people on the other side of the world. It's hard to grasp the importance of events when they're so remote, and when the people are reduced to just a few statistics. Thousands can die in earthquakes in Turkey and it doesn't affect my life. A friend losing his job has more impact on me.
If I think about it, I could probably name a few people I know who serve in the military, or who fought in a war. None come to mind offhand, though. Neither of my parents did; my maternal grandfather might have been involved in World War II somehow (or maybe lied about his age and served in World War I), but I don't really know. So I don't really have a close connection to the military or to a veteran, that I can think of. And if there's someone obvious whom I just can't think of, then obviously the relationship even there (to the military, not to the person) isn't all that close.
(Actually, I believe Debbi's father was in Vietnam. That's as close as I can come.)
But someone whose father served in Vietnam, or grandfather in World War II, or who has friends or relatives serving now, that would probably make them feel differently.
The US has a conflicted attitude towards its military and its veterans. Vietnam, after all, was a huge source of conflict for the nation, many people feeling our policies towards the region at the time were completely wrong. There's the same feeling towards a possible invasion of Iraq. Poised between this point of view and people who support those causes is this peculiar "support our troops even if you don't support the cause" outlook, which I mostly don't understand. I think the source of my misunderstanding is that some people use this notion to persuade people that opposing the cause while our troops are fighting means opposing our troops, this trying to trick people into supporting a cause they oppose. Other people use the notion to encourage people to demonstrate to the soldiers individually that we will support them on their return (through veterans programs, funding, and recognition that they were willing to serve regardless of the cause). Being a cynical sort, I tend to see more of the former than the latter in such arguments, though I see the value in the latter.
The whole issue is further muddied by the existence of Vietnam-era draft dodgers, people who the US tried to force into serving in Vietnam even though they were strongly opposed to the cause, and who left the country or went into hiding to avoid it. (Not that I don't believe there were people who simply didn't want to get killed - former Vice President Dan Quayle, for instance - but I believe there were people who did strongly oppose the cause.) It's impossible for me to get behind the government's attempts to force these people into service, and when I hear people speaking out against the draft dodgers - who in some cases are veterans - it makes it difficult for me to embrace their point of view towards the war. Or towards veterans.
I have problems with how our military markets itself to teenagers and young adults, making it seem like a vocational school with a special honor, without much mention of the risks being in the military entails. Myself, I was always keenly aware of the risks and not too interested in the benefits, which is why I was nervous as hell when the US invaded Iraq on my 22nd birthday - in 1991. (At the time, we had no idea how long the war would last, how dirty it might become, or whether they might institute a draft.)
Is Veterans Day a day to thank our veterans for protecting our freedom? This would ring truer for me if US military policy hadn't seemed so questionable for much of the last 40 years. I don't think you can separate the army from the nation's policy. They're too intertwined. It's much the same as a soldier not being able to claim he was "only following orders" when committing a terrible crime while serving.
Is Veterans Day a day to thank our soldiers for serving so that we don't have to? This would ring truer if the US hadn't pursued its draft-or-persecute policy during Vietnam. I think whole generations of people - including myself - have come to doubt that we would be let off the hook in the event of a war.
Policies make it hard to feel thankful. Don't even ask me what I think about Bush thinking of invading Iraq.
I'm grateful to our veterans for fighting the Axis in World War II. I'm grateful that they were willing to stand by in the event of a catastrophe in the Cold War, and I regret that they had to fight in the brutal, insane, and wasted wars that occurred during that stretch.
I'm grateful that they'll be going to Iraq so that I don't have to.
But I hope they won't have to go, and I curse George W. Bush for threatening to send them and using those threats for political gain, and then for being such a weasel that he forces the United Nations to take the responsibility for his threats.
That's all the gratitude I can muster today. It's not much, but our government makes it awfully hard sometimes.