Reflections of a Citizen Soldier After Veterans Day

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Ever since Veterans Day, I have been re-reading and pondering President Obama’s remarks at the customary official celebration of the occasion in Arlington Cemetery. Something about the familiar words reminded me uncomfortably of remarks by past presidents that have now become virtually standard every year. Obama sounded the opening theme:

“Today we gather once more to honor patriots who have rendered the highest service any American can offer this nation — those who fought for our freedom and stood sentry for our security. In the life of our nation, across every generation, there are those who… put on the uniform and …put their lives on the line. They do this so that the rest of us might live in a country and a world that is safer, freer and more just.”

Then, after invoking the magic place names — Lexington Green, Gettysburg, the beaches of Europe and the islands of the Pacific, with a nod to Korea — he got to recent history. “From the jungles of Vietnam to Desert Storm to the mountains of the Balkans, they have answered America’s call. And since America was attacked on that clear September morning, millions more have assumed that mantle, defining one of the greatest generations of military service this country has ever produced.”

A military honor guard holds the Medal of Honor before President Barack Obama awards it to former Army Capt. William D. Swenson of Seattle, Wash., during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

A military honor guard holds the Medal of Honor before President Barack Obama awards it to former Army Capt. William D. Swenson of Seattle, Wash., during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

It was the old refrain: Veterans of all our wars have been “heroes,” and all the wars have been in defense of our liberty. My first reaction could be summed up in an eight-letter barnyard epithet, but I believe that the subject deserves a more nuanced and developed afterthought. I’ll begin with the part I played in the war of 1939-45.

I’m a non-combat veteran. I didn’t lay my life on the line. My overseas service took place as a translator in signal intelligence sections of headquarters in New Delhi and Kunming, China, both far from front lines. As a result, I have a profound and abiding respect for those who did their duty under fire. Most of them, according to what I have read and heard, ordinary men terrified most of the time but sticking it out from a mixture of good training, loyalty to their buddies and fear of shaming themselves by exhibiting cowardice — but never, in actual battle, making speeches about the glory of dying for flag and freedom. I am more than willing to label them and them alone as “heroic” and fully deserving of public gratitude and benefits.

But I have some qualifications. For one thing, pinning figurative “Hero” medals on every veteran’s chest, like all rhetorical excesses, dilutes the value of decorations earned by genuine acts of extraordinary valor. “When everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody.” What’s more, not every soldier is an admirable specimen of humanity. The ranks also include goldbricks, bootlickers, self-promoters and artful dodgers; plus both noncommissioned and commissioned officers who take advantage of the military’s hierarchical structure to become petty tyrants. Every honest vet knows that.

Nor is bravery under bombardment a character trait conferred by God only on those whose cause is just. Many an SS trooper in France, and no doubt many a Soviet enlisted man or officer in Afghanistan probably performed gallantly in a bad cause just as tyrants’ armies have always done. Let’s respect heroism but not overrate it as a universal sanitizer.

What annoys me more than this general military-grade inflation is the implicit bedrock insistence that our troops have never fired a shot that wasn’t in defense of our liberties. It’s a plain falsification of history. True in the Revolution, of course. Perhaps partly true in the War of 1812 since that one ended British notions of re-conquering any part of the young United States. Certainly true for the 180,000 black troops in the Civil War. Certainly not true of either the Mexican or Spanish-American Wars, nor of our share of World War I and only indirectly true of World War II which more properly rates Woodrow Wilson’s description of the earlier one as a war to “make the world safe for democracy. ”

World War II was the last war declared properly, as the Constitution demands, by Congress, which thereafter, forsaking “original intent,” passed the hot potato of responsibility for success or failure to the unresisting President in moments of crisis.

Of our post-1945 Asian and Middle Eastern wars to “contain Communism” and fight a vaguely defined and possibly endless “war on terror” I say nothing here except that their alleged protection of our freedoms has been and continues to be entirely debatable.

What, then are my remaining feelings surrounding Veterans Day this year? The first is anger at the capture and rebranding of what I knew, growing up, as Armistice Day. It was a celebration of the return of peace in 1918 after four years of massive and brutal slaughter in the trenches of the stalemated Western Front, not to mention other equally destructive theaters of war. What could have been a day of dedication to efforts to make sure that such catastrophes could never happen again has been hijacked to the militaristic message that it is only armed force that guarantees freedom.

In fact the war of 1914-18 was supposedly “the war to end wars.” My father served in that one, but just 24 years later I was putting on the uniform for the next act, the war of 1939-45. I still feel that that one came as close as possible to a necessary war and am proud of my small role in it. But by 1965 my son was old enough to be eligible for service in Vietnam and in 2008 his son could have been sent to Afghanistan if there was a draft — though luckily, from my point of view, neither did so. So beside my anger, a deep sadness envelops me when I look at that record. There simply has to be some way to stop this endless chain of generations ravaged by wars.

Mention of the draft brings me to some final thoughts. As a “soldier” without weapons (unless we count a Japanese dictionary), I belonged to the majority of the uniformed millions — those of us who neither heard nor fired a shot in anger. That was because all the logistical and support services, many of which are now contracted out, were performed by members of the military. That was why conscription was a necessity — to fill vast reservoirs of needed manpower. But there was an upside to the draft in “my” war as well as those in Korea and Vietnam. War reached the eyes, ears and hearts of the civilians at home, millions of whom had relatives in the service and therefore took an active interest in the troops’ welfare. It pulled the home front and the battlefronts closer together making families all across the nation more willing to accept the shortages and inconveniences of wartime life, and more insistent on learning from war correspondents — even through the twin veils of censorship and propaganda — how their “boys” were being treated, how well the war was going, and who in military and political office should be held accountable when the news was bad.

In World War II, at least, that feeling of “we’re-all-in-it-together” is what accounts for the dwindling number of old-timers who recall it sentimentally and not exactly accurately as a “good” war.

As for those of us temporary men-at-arms who passed into and out of the ranks in those years, I can say with confidence that I never heard us described boastfully by our civilian leaders as the finest, best-led, best-trained, best-equipped fighting force the world had ever seen, which seems to be a necessary routine for success in today’s political world. Nor would I or any buddies of mine have given a damn for that kind of hollow flattery. The professionals of the Regular Army (and I presume the Marines and Navy) might think of themselves as champion warriors though I seriously doubt that they were heel-clicking sycophants to what we called heavy brass. It just wasn’t and probably still isn’t the American style of soldiering, which is one of irreverence toward pretense.

We in the separately named Army of the United States were “temps,” signed up for the duration. We were summoned to service in a time of genuine need without much time for us to be trained, but as the war went on, we performed better and better against more experienced German and Japanese forces, aided, of course, by America’s astonishing productive capacities which gave us an ever-increasing superiority in materiel. But we were overjoyed to return to civil life when the need was gone.

We were, in short, citizen-soldiers of a democracy. That’s the honorable title which I’ll always be proud to claim and it beats any other military rank that I care about or ever will.

Bernard Weisberger is an American historian now in his 9th decade. A frequent contributor to this site, he is the author of more than a dozen books, including The LaFollettes of Wisconsin, They Gathered at the River, and America Afire. He collaborated on documentaries with Bill Moyers and Ken Burns.
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