Sunday, November 18, 2007

Veterans Day

This post comes quite late, but I didn't want Veterans Day to pass without some kind of reflection. I'm reading Republic Commando: True Colors (by the truly excellent Karen Traviss) and recently finished reading the Iliad all the way through (success at last!), both of which have touched me quite deeply, so it seemed like an appropriate time in my emotional life to deal with the subject of Veterans Day.

It's common on or around Veterans Day to hear people expressing thanks (to God or otherwise) for the men and women who have served to secure our liberties and our way of life. I recently read a number of DAR essays expressing such sentiments.

This kind of talk always makes me uncomfortable. Undoubtedly there have been a great many of American veterans who served and died with the result that our liberties and way of life were secured from direct attack. The veterans of the Revolutionary War come most immediately to mind. But even they ... I mean, how many of those men went to war for the purpose of securing the birth of the nascent nation? Certainly not the vast majority of the veterans of 1776. And what about the veterans of our other wars? Did the Spanish American War really threaten our liberties? Did even World War II (our way of life, perhaps. Our liberties? Who really thinks an Axis victory would have resulted in the conquest of America and not a peace treaty?)? Does the current war in Iraq really defend our liberties or our way of life?

I am thankful that for most of its history this nation has had the good sense to have a War Department rather than a Department of Defense. Not that I oppose the bureaucratic unification of the DoD, but the name ... I mean, really, come on. Whenever people talk about our wars as defensive in nature, I cringe. I suppose it's the classicist in me. In roughly two hundred years of history the Republic of Rome was at peace for twelve. All of those wars were, officially, to defend Roman liberties and the Roman way of life. Did you know that? And in the end? Rome had conquered, quite by accident, the whole of the Mediterranean. Oh, and the republican way of life was lost forever despite the efforts of some very talented well-meaning patriots.

I don't want that for America. I don't want us to go on making defensive war until our nation crashes down around our ears. I want us to call our wars what they are - defensive, aggressive, opportunistic, preemptive, vengeful, whatever. I doubt politicians will do so within my lifetime. But the American citizenry might.

And what about the soldiers? I'll tell you why I celebrate Veterans Day (in my quiet, internal, Natalian way). It's not because the millions of American veterans have secured my liberties (I won't even get into securing my way of life. Does it deserve to be secured?). Some of them have, and some of them haven't. Very few of those who have secured my liberties fought and died, when the chips were down, to secure the liberties of a stranger who would live decades or even centuries after they were dust and gone. Some of the veterans I would like to honor on Veterans Day didn't serve in any conflicts at all.

But they were all soldiers.

What is a soldier? In Knights of the Old Republic a soldier of the Old Republic, Carth Onasi, debates with a Mandalorian warrior the difference between a soldier and a warrior. Here's a definition of "warrior" that fits for the warriors of Mandalore and with the warriors of Homer:

A warrior fights for his good and the good of all his people.

Sarpedon was a warrior. Achilles was a warrior. And a soldier? Here's a definition of "soldier" that fits for the soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic and for the United States of America:

A soldier fights for the good of his people and surrenders that good for himself.

Achilles was the greatest warrior of his age but not a soldier until the last year of his life. Rodger Young, now ... Rodger Young was a soldier.

Not all American soldiers have secured my liberties. All of them surrendered theirs when they signed up. An American soldier does not, like Achilles, reap the reward of his efforts. An American soldier might or might not do something that secures my liberty during his career, but one thing is sure: for the duration of that career he gives up most of the liberties that make America what she is. He gives up what he has for the chance to give to his people a spoil of war that he himself may never see.

Until, that is, he puts away his uniform, hangs up his weapon, and becomes a veteran.

I'm aware that it's more complicated than that. I'm aware that many citizens become soldiers with patriotism way down on the list of their motivations, and that some become soldiers with no patriotic motivations whatsoever. I'm aware, I think as much as a civilian can be, of why fighting men actually fight. But I also think that what I have written, even though it's only part of the story, is true. And that's why I celebrate Veterans Day.


Oswell55 said...

I like that distinction of warrior and soldier. And, while you are correct in your characterization of most of America's wars as not defensive, your specific example of WWII to support that point is not a good choice. In hindsight we look at WWII and see that American soil was always secure from the Nazi threat. At the time, this would not have been so clear. First of all, Nazi Germany had a long string of world-shockingly successful feats-of-arms. And they had designs on America. In one of the episodes of Ken Burn's recent documentary, The War, one of the interviewed American veterans relates a conversation he had with a German prisoner. Speaking in unaccented English, the prisoner queried him persistently until he found out exactly WHICH small town in Connecticut his American captor hailed from. When he found out, the German displayed a astounding grasp of minute geographic details in that area. Asked by the American how he came to such knowledge, the German replied "It was part of my training to be the Administrator for that region."

Natalie said...

Oh, I know things often look less threatening in hindsight than they did in the past. I suppose I muddled that paragraph some.

I imagine a greater-than-average number of folks serving in World War II had some idea explicitly in mind of serving and fighting to defend the Constitution and our way of life. My point was that the fact of the matter may well be that the Constitution was never under attack, and therefore their service, in fact, did not defend it.

But even if that's true, does it diminish the value of their service? Hardly. What I was trying to say was that the value of their service is in what they were willing to do (and thought they had done), not in what they actually did. The judgments of history may change as to what a generation of soldiers did or did not accomplish, did or did not secure. For this reason, to value their service based on what they actually accomplished seems obscenely transitory and changeable to me. It's not for me to value a soldier of the Revolution more than a soldier of the Vietnam War simply because the present consensus is that the Revolution was critical to American heritage and Vietnam was an embarrassing waste.

In that sense I think World War II is a good choice, since I imagine in terms of the motivations of the soldiery it was the most patriotic war we've had since the Civil War. It's the motivations, the fact of soldiering, that I want to honor. Not what they did while they were soldiering.