Today, November 11, marks Veteran’s Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada. Originally called Armistice Day and begun to mark the end of the “War to End all Wars,” Veteran’s Day now celebrates the service and sacrifice of soldiers who have fought in all of the United States’ wars. (Turns out the First World War was not the war to end all wars after all).
Today I find myself torn between two undeniable realities.
One: millions of U.S.-Americans have fought and sometimes died with the intention of securing the “freedom” of their fellow countrywomen and men.
Two: many of these wars have been unjust. The United States military has oppressed at least as much as it has liberated. It has inflicted violence upon the defenseless bodies of children at least as much as it has protected them from it.
These two truths do not sit easily within me.
So today I wonder, how do we celebrate Veteran’s Day in a country that fights unjust wars?
I invite you all to help me reflect upon this.
UPDATE: Perhaps in order to maintain a balance between honoring true valor and mourning unfortunate failure, we ought to implement a type of Day of National Mourning, in which we lament the injustices perpetuated by the United States military throughout history.
Katie, thanks so much for this. The tension is real and something that must be addressed. At the very least, we need to have a more honest and prayerful assessment of the reality and the existence of human failures (sin) while also recognizing the reality of well-meaning heroic actions (grace). A big related danger here is prideful nationalism. A deeper analysis on the social dimensions to pride- which is in sharp contrast to the cross (see Phil. 2) and the sin of excessive nationalism may be helpful- keeping in mind of course the dangers of focusing too much on humility.
Thanks for this, Kevin. I especially appreciate your use of Phil 2. The balance you call for can be so very difficult to strike.
I also share the tension. I enlisted in the US WAC in the 1950’s. At 19 yrs of age, it was a way to finish school and serve my Country. I learned a lot. Most of the people who enlisted came from poverty. The wealthy and powerful might start wars, but it’s the poor who die and suffer the most. At that time PTSD was not recognized and I saw the suffering of soldiers who had been in combat – more victim than hero. That doesn’t even begin to recognize the suffering of innocent children, mothers, seniors, non-combatants, etc., who also die – or of the earth torn apart and poisoned.
After WW2 we were warned by Gen Ike about the “Military-Industrial Complex”. That reality is in full swing now, and I think is in total control. So as Katie pointed out, war is a most profitable “business” that involves us all in unjust wars and war crimes. The US might take a lead, but NATO follows, and many others manufacture the weapons.
I would like to see Remembrance Day be a realistic remembering and a call to peace, and actions for peace. War is out-dated and sinful. I can’t celebrate or condone “heroism” except for the kind that says: “No More! Stop the Madness! Learn peace and pursue it”
Thank you for these powerful and personal reflections .
Thanks for this Katie. I think maybe I would add two questions to this. One, when we determine a war to be unjust, what difference does it make morally when we make a claim about its justice beforehand vs. afterwards? While some wars are clearly unjust after the fact (especially when key information was withheld), it might be less clear or even apparently just in the lead up.
Two, since Veterans Day is about the particular veterans themselves, how do we honor them without at the same time ostensibly supporting militarism, prideful nationalism, etc.? I suspect most who have served have done so with good intentions, and few of them have had a role in calling for war, planning major actions in war, etc. As much as just war criteria call for discrimination in who gets targeted and who can be punished post-war, how do we exercise the same kind of discrimination when we honor those who have served without necessarily supporting militarism?
Yes Stephen. Your second question especially is exactly the sort of question I am wrestling with.
I think this type of discrimination would be such an important step precisely bc the holiday as currently celebrated seems to forbid it and instead requires that we celebrate all veterans as a uniformly heroic and virtuous undifferentiated corporate body.
I also think your first question calls for us as a culture to see war as an occasion for moral peril in a way we currently don’t.
YES. That is the answer I did not realize I was looking for. I think that’s one reason I tend to like Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer; they emphasize that so much more strongly than the just war thinkers seem to.
As a veteran myself, I think it’s most important to remember that we are honoring those that served today based on what they do, day in, day out. We are not celebrating the wars on this day, but the people. It doesn’t matter if the war is just or not. They are serving their country, many not agreeing in the conflict themselves, but are doing what they signed up to do. Perhaps thinking that the small role that they play might make a difference somewhere.
The wars of today are no different that that of Viet Nam. The majority of the country hated that war as much as people do the wars of today, and yet people still did what their country asked of them to do. My Dad was one of them. They didn’t do it for appreciation, they did it because they were asked to. The same goes for the military of today. The large part of the military are just normal people that are doing the best with what they’ve been given. So celebrate the contributions of the “average Joe” just trying to do the best he can, often in horrible situations.
There’s a gem from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” which is new to me this Veteran’s Day / Armistice Day. It seemed like the right thing to put here for thought. It’s at the bottom.
All national holidays get a truck of salt from me. In the tradition of Vonnegut, the nation state is a granfalloon and I’m not sure how I can celebrate it or its warriors. To that practical question of yours — how do we strike the balance — I’m not sure. I will of course pray for all the living and the dead, and honor the good will of every person, which many veterans surely are. Jay, just above, hearkens to that distinction between good will and evil acts, and I think it’s true, even though I’m still not sure *how* to celebrate and honor on this day or others like it. Really, I end up doing nothing particular on most days like these. That’s not much of an answer.
But here, Vonnegut:
“I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
“It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one and another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
“Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ day is not.
“So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
“What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
“And all music is.”
I could add more and better sacred things, but the voice of God is surely in the end of war.
Amen and thank you.
I am always amazed when I visit the USA at how deeply militarized the USA is.
I have yet to see a just war and I don’t believe any ever have or ever will for the simple reason that a deliberate choice to use violence is always morally wrong.
As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it:
Which reminds us that we also ought to be be honoring conscientious objectors.
I think there is a helpful distinction between the evil of war and the good (eg disaster relief) that the military can do; although the good done is not properly speaking a military function so much as a function of government organisation.(think of all the other state bodies which assist in disaster relief).
The question of military chaplains is one at the sharp edge of this issue for Christians. How can we provide pastoral care for Catholics in the military without that creeping over (as it so often seems to do) into providing support and cover for unjust wars ? Do our military chaplains really preach, express and live gospel non-violence ? Or do they just cave to the military culture of violence ?