Black Americans, Black Migration, Blind Patriotism, Civil Rights Movement, Civilians, Erasure, Freedom, History Lessons, Honoring, Hyper-Patriotism, Invisibility, Jim Crow, Meaning, Native Americans, Patriotism for Profit, Sacrifice, Service, Slavery, Veterans Day
Just like with Memorial Day and with Independence Day, I often find myself conflicted about Veterans Day. Not because I think individual members of the military deserve praise or scorn. As usual, the vast majority of Americans think too simplistically about their country, its people, its intentions and history, even its holidays. Too many of us go along to get along. It’s as if we expect the contradictions and tensions that make up our times and days like today to simply melt away in some high-pitched display of blind patriotism. I have not — and likely will never be — that American, pumped up with pride and affection, shouting slogans as gospel truth, thanking every member of the military for every single breath of American air that I breathe. And that is because the narrative for days like today has never worked for me.
In some respects, the blind march of Veterans Day is with Americans every single day. The media covers the military and individual military members as if all of them have spent weeks on the front lines, as if all of them are patriots above reproach. Almost all of us have known someone who’s served, and we know that service for most was never as simple as wrapping the American flag around themselves in defense of American freedoms halfway around the world (or at a base a few miles from home). In recent months, we’ve learned that much of the constant drumbeat of military-fueled patriotism the military itself has bought and paid for, at NFL and college football and baseball games. Reinforcing one of America’s main values — profit.
Today is Veterans Day, created seventy-seven years ago in the aftermath of the Great War, the “War to End All Wars,” World War I. It was a terrible war, after all. Ten million soldiers and sailors on all sides died, twenty million found themselves ripped and torn apart, and eight million civilians died. But not for or in the US, where 120,000 soldiers and sailors died, a few hundred thousand were wounded, and few hundred civilians died. The US didn’t enter the war until April 1917, nearly three years into the raging Eurasian conflict. American weapons manufacturers and merchants profited greatly from the war even before the US declared war on Germany, selling arms and food to both sides.
War is never simple. Neither should be what we think of those who served or are serving. Veterans Day is about respecting those who have served or are serving. Like my youngest brother Eri, or my Uncle Felton, or my sister-in-law or my late uncle-in-laws. Thanking or respecting them, though, shouldn’t be tied directly to the idea that I “live in a free country.” I don’t believe that the US is a free country, not for me and for millions of others like me. Nor do I believe that the US military has played a role in preserving my individual freedoms and liberties historically. I am a Black man living in a society built in part on systemic racism, often maintained or reinforced by the US military. Except for some elements of the Union Army during the Civil War, the US military has played a very small role in making sure that I or anyone who looks like me — male, female or transgender — lives in a free country.
Not to mention, the US hasn’t been invaded in over 200 years (I don’t want to hear about Pancho Villa — that wasn’t an invasion). Since when does fighting North Koreans, the Viet Cong, or even Nazis equate to me and others and our “freedoms?” Seriously, every time someone says this, it’s as if you’re attempting to erase long civilian fights for civil rights, for the most basic of freedoms that the US purports to grant to every citizen. Folks who say that we should be grateful to the military for living in a free country completely make invisible Native Americans. The US military was what guaranteed their near annihilation, deculturalization and unyielding poverty, especially from 1865 on.
Yes, some of you will note that I can write my post without fear of retribution from the government. Then I will say in response, “How does serving overseas guarantee my rights?” It doesn’t. A lot went into putting me in a better position in my life. Black migration, the Civil Rights Movement (flaws and all), the sacrifices of Black and White civilian leadership (including their deaths). I am one generation removed from sharecropping and tenant farming in Georgia and Arkansas, one generation removed from the last years of the Jim Crow era. But somehow, the US military is responsible for me living “in a free country.” Sorry, but that’s a narrative I cannot get behind.
So, we should all thank individual veterans for their service. We should honor the dead and the broken among them. For whether they came to serve out of a deep sense of patriotism, because of the draft (prior to 1973), because there weren’t any jobs in their communities, or because they wanted a chance at today’s version of the GI bill, some of them have paid dearly in their service. But since we do not live in a military junta or in a totalitarian society, I dare say that I don’t have to go along with the narrative that without the military, I would be a slave. History contradicts every aspect of this false narrative.
This isn’t Sparta (Sparta wasn’t even Sparta). Nor should the US ever be Sparta.