Today we honor veterans. I think first of my seven uncles in WWII. Five of my dad's brothers fought in Europe, including several in the Normandy invasion, and they all survived. Two are still alive. My mom's two older brothers fought in the Pacific. Then I think of my dad, pictured above, whose service was in an all-too-rare interlude of peace, so he put his math skills to work at Fort Knox. Then there are numerous cousins, and second cousins, who have enlisted and served in places from Viet Nam to Iraq. And lastly I think of my son, who is still in the early stages of serving this country.
So when a holiday of honor rolls around, it is personal. And this year I'm here in America where these lovely advertisements on TV are telling us to buy a green light and leave it shining. These are quite moving and well done, and the idea reminds me of the yellow ribbons that were around trees when I was a kid and we were waiting for people to come home from Viet Nam. It sounds supportive, until you notice that the adds are sponsored by Walmart. Which is selling the light. Hmm.
And that sort of sums up the Veteran's Day paradox. How do we acknowledge and honor the people who put their lives on the line for us, while still keeping in mind that we're talking about things as abhorrent as war which should not become a sentimental marketing gimmick?
First, I think by refusing to let the moral complexity of the use of force be diluted into an unquestioning celebration of patriotism. Using military force, anywhere, is a messy mixture of rescue and greed, and we don't always get it right. I am proud that our entire country sacrificed to stop the forces of world domination and genocide that Hitler unleashed in Germany. But we can't ignore the massive civilian casualties (particularly Nagasaki and Hiroshima), the starvation in Holland, the aching families who did not have all their sons return like ours did. Huge costs are always paid, and we must remain skeptical of the contractors who profit from conflict, we must always examine motives, and consider alternatives.
Second, by refusing to generalize specific crimes and injustice into an illusion that the world would be a better place without any military. That is an opinion one can only have from the comfort of a country that has had minimal risk of invasion and relative security from personal violence. One of the best books I've read in the last couple of years was The Locust Effect, and if that doesn't give you a chilling wake-up call to the reality of living in majority-world poverty at the mercy of traffickers, extortion, rapists, and all forms of violence in a propagating cycle, well, then you need to get out and look around. Our family lived on a border that knew war, and many of our friends continue to live in displacement and risk. Evil abounds. Evil needs to be restrained. Force is often required to do that. Yes, as a last resort, but as a necessary one.
So, I didn't buy a green light (yet), but I completely respect my son and his choices to put his life on the line to make the world a better place. I pray that people who can make money from another country's resources, or from selling weapons or all kids of junk to our own military, don't drive us towards war after war. But I also pray that people like my uncles, and my dad, and my cousins, and my son will continue to be willing to sacrifice for values greater than themselves. And for that we thank them.