I was a youth during the era of the Vietnam War. I remember watching televised coverage of the draft lottery: birthdates picked out of a machine that could have been used for bingo. Those of a certain age whose birthdays fell on the dates selected would be drafted.
I also remember a junior high school trip to Washington, D.C. While on the steps of the Capitol, we were caught in an anti-war demonstration. Our teachers dutifully kept us in a tight circle while I carefully watched as protestors were arrested and hauled off by police. The way they were treated was more brutal than I ever saw before.
That same day, on the steps of the Capitol were bamboo enclosures called tiger cages. I knew from the news that captured American soldiers were kept in these cages. On the steps of the Capitol, young men locked themselves in these cages as an act of protest. Half naked and dirty, they reminded me of the coal miners I would see on hot summer days as they walked home from work in rural Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up.
In the church of my youth, a candle was kept burning at a shrine throughout those years of war. While we prayed each week for peace and for the safety of the soldiers, it was also clear that the pastor had strong opinions in support of the war. He voiced them in most every sermon.
While I did not serve in the military, my connections with those in the military and who are veterans are varied and deep. Among my close friends are people who retired from military service after twenty years. Many of my students are themselves currently serving in the military or have family members who are deployed in some part of the world. Among my colleagues at the university are other professors who are veterans and others who taught at military academies. Because of all these varied connections, I’ve gotten to know many members of the military and have learned of the pride taken in their service as well the significant challenges they often face.
I also keep in my top desk drawer a box filled with medals – military honors – that my father earned as a sailor in World War II. He was on duty at that horrible battle at Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into the war. In the confusion after the battle, his family (my grandparents) was notified that he had been killed in the battle. In fact, he had made it from his sinking ship to another vessel and was unharmed. However, the paper work was not properly filed and for a time the family thought that he was dead.
As I approach the Memorial Day holiday, I once again have very conflicted thoughts about war, the military itself as an institution, and the people who make up the military. Memorial Day has a certain kind of reverence for me because of the tremendous toll that includes the lives of countless people. But it’s also a day when I remember and reflect on many complex issues that are intertwined with military service today.
On Memorial Day, I remember that wars themselves are the result of older generations grabbing for power and results in the death of countless people. We know that was true in World War II as Hitler and his followers pursued fantasies of world domination. We have a very difficult time admitting that it was also true as the United States went to war in Iraq to guarantee that Western oil companies would control the Iraqi oil supply. Then and now, billions of dollars were wasted and thousands of lives lost.
On Memorial Day I also remember that politicians often speak boldly of their commitment to the military and to those who serve in its branches, yet routinely cut funds for proper equipment and tangible support. Their votes result in lives lost and hardship endured by military families.. As diabolical as politics has been for the lives of those in military service, health care to Veterans is inadequate and overly burdensome to an excessive degree. As I write, the scandals of the VA health system continue to unfold.
On Memorial Day, I remember how often those in uniform are stopped by random civilians to thank them for their service, applauding for active duty personnel in uniform. All kinds of fuss is make to demonstrate a sense of patriotic gratitude. Yet, many military veterans often find it difficult to find employment once they leave the military. There is an unspoken, pervasive fear that veterans are all mentally unstable and suffer from PTSD. A common perception is that veterans are all broken people with severe psychological scars. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
On Memorial Day, I also remember that many of the members of an all volunteer military have enlisted because of economic hardship. Far too many young people today have been saddled with student loans that are impossible for them to pay back. While there are signs of economic recovery from a macro perspective, the day to day reality for many people is that even with a college degree, many of the available jobs don’t pay a living wage. Enlistment has become the only option for many young people because of student loan repayment programs offered by the military. Yes, it’s an all-volunteer military but the rules of society have been rigged to systematically push young, educated people into the service.
If you read this and think I’m unpatriotic or anti-military, then you’ve missed my point. Memorial Day is the holiday on which we remember those who have given their lives in service of our country. Yet, in more ways that we can count, men and women are sacrificing themselves each day for……well, to be honest, most days I’m not sure exactly what for. Our political leaders have time and again proven themselves as scoundrels by using the military for the economic gain of the elite. Yet, even when there isn’t a credible mission, the members of the military give of themselves in countless ways because we, as a nation, require it. In return, far too many members of our armed services are left with broken promises and broken lives.
For whatever it is worth, on this Memorial Day, I do remember their service and sacrifice. The real sacrifices made by members of our armed services are barely recognized or acknowledged. It’s a false sense of patriotism that fails to see the real life of those who give of themselves for the United States.
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.