Plato warned us 2,500 years ago that “only the dead have seen the end of war.” We Americans like to think we are a peace-loving people. But the philosopher could have been speaking of our dead as much as any other. We have, in fact, sent our young men and women into the crucible of ten significant wars, and countless smaller engagements, in a mere 244 years. Today we honor those among us who wore the uniform and took the fight to the enemy in World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, the horn of Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central America, and many other lesser known theaters of war. Veterans Day is not just a square on a calendar with a little American flag in the corner. It is a reminder to those of us who have never worn the uniform of the debt we owe those who walked the wall on our behalf.
It is up to us, then, to make sure that when these brave souls do return home to us, hang up the uniform, and get on with their lives that we look after them. And so today is a day for the nation to ask a question. Are we being true to our veterans?
I do not mean this in terms of the VHA scandal. We know the issues facing us there and, hopefully, are making moves to correct it. And as with apparently everything under the sun now, politics shapes our views on how serious the scandal was to begin with, and how well it has been addressed since it first came to light. One’s opinions on this matter will in large measure be a reflection of one’s news source.
We Americans are tasked with honoring a sublime commitment to our veterans beyond reducing waiting time for hospital admittance, clean linen, competent medical care and the like, all of which go without saying. I am talking about our obligation to maintain the very nation these brave men and women gave so much of themselves to protect.
I think of my own father, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines who was wounded by a Chinese mortar while fighting in Korea. His division was called “The Old Breed” and the name implies a continuum that transcends generations. Veterans of Chateau-Thierry and Meuse-Argonne passed the chalice to the veterans of Guadalcanal, Peleliu and Okinawa, who passed it to the men of Inchon and Chosin, who again handed it to the men at Khe Sanh and Hue, and then to the care of the troops in the sands of Beirut and Iraq. The history of the American fighting man goes further back in time to our very beginning as a nation. Today, if we need a reminder of the sacrifices of her fighting children we can walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, Shiloh, Chickamauga, Monmouth, Saratoga, Cowpens. In 1982 I walked the Antietam battlefield with my father; he was separated by three decades from his own service and 120 years from those who fought in this Civil War battle. And still he teared up as he walked the ground on which so many fought and suffered and died. He still felt a kinship with those who’d struggled here. Veterans are like that. They are a fraternity of self-sacrifice. They will never fail this country, or shrink from the challenges of defender against all enemies, foreign and domestic. They know their duty. And they have kept the faith.
But what about the rest of us in this land for which they are willing to give their lives? Are we doing our part? In the mind’s eye, one imagines one of those famous Marines who planted the flag atop Mount Suribachi on bloody Iwo Jima pondering a line of wealthy, entitled, athletes, to whom this country has given so much, kneeling in protest of that same flag. Would they feel a sense of bewilderment? We see them asking what has happened? And why has this happened? Should they flip on the evening news they’d probably be stunned by the images of violence, bloodshed, rampant looting, and the other symptoms of the lesser nations from whom these veterans protected us taking place on American streets in American cities. They might be befuddled as to why they cannot tell the difference between Portland in 2020 and Munich in 1933. What, exactly, they might ask, did we risk our necks for at all?
It raises a salient question: for all that veterans have fulfilled their obligations to us, what are our obligations to them? I think the answer is simple. To preserve the nation they fought for. To do this we must ask questions. I’d like to know what they believed they were fighting for. Did they fight so that a few billionaire tech lords could dictate who says what and when and where in the public space? Did they fight so that 93% of the media would be effectively the propaganda arm of one political party? Did they fight so that those in Congress whose mediocrity is matched only by their manic ambition would bog the nation down in one faux scandal after another, a sham impeachment, the destruction of good jurists’ reputations, a House Speaker tearing up a State of the Union Speech behind the duly elected President’s back? Did they fight so that for four years large swaths of the nation would refuse to accept the outcome of a fair and free election, only to cast aspersions on those who now question the results of an election rife with fraud, and simply seek validation one way or the other?
Again, why did they leave home and hearth and lay their lives of the line? Did they fight for a nation wherein people are now balkanized by race? Skin color? Sexual preference? Ethnicity? Did they fight so that Marxist organizations like Black Lives Matter could be welcomed into the Mainstream while 70 million Americans are decried even by former first ladies as being on the side of “lies, hate, chaos, and division”? Did they fight so that those who traffic primarily in money and influence, who never built anything of enduring value, could betray our working heartland by shutting down our factories and delivering the manufacturing base that made it possible for these veterans to wage war with more than sharpened sticks in the first place into the hands of our enemies?
With every shuttered factory. With every small town that dies. With every person who succumbs to Fentanyl courtesy of those with whom our political leaders and their sons make sordid deals. With every window shattered. Every store looted. Every building burned. Every business ruined. Every statue and monument honoring our past defaced and torn down. With every false press report declaring rampaging mobs “mostly peaceful.” With every independent thinking professor or journalist black-listed for not toeing the far left line. With every speaker shouted down in the lecture hall. Every judge falsely accused of heinous acts for political gain. Every call to tear up our Constitution. With every child born into a fatherless home. And with very American student who leaves our public school system functionally illiterate, we are failing in our side of the deal. Our veterans deserve better.
When I was a little boy, I used to play a game. Or at least what I thought was a game at the time. Only now do I understand what it really meant. I would sneak into my father’s bedroom at night, and see how close I could get to him before he woke up with a start. I was always amazed at how he’d open his eyes and jack knife up in the sheets and look around before I set more than one foot into the room. He learned that in combat, when the enemy would attack during the night. Sleeping with a hair trigger in a foxhole kept him alive. It was a habit that, like so much else he brought home from the war, stayed with him long after the fighting was over. When I got older, and would sit up with him while he had a drink to calm his nerves, he would tell me his war stories. They were disturbing, fascinating, heartbreaking, terrifying. I think now of the sacrifice he and countless other veterans have made so that his son seated across the table could live in a better world. And I sometimes ask myself, is this a better world? Are we a better people? A better nation? Is this even the America our veterans fought to preserve? After everything we have seen in 2020, I don’t know. I really don’t.