I always liked the original name for this holiday, Armistice Day, and the idea behind it—celebrating the last war this country would ever fight, a lot better than its current iteration as Veterans Day, honoring all the veterans who “served” this country in peace or war. The Great War (1914-18) certainly wasn’t our or anyone else’s last war, sadly. The hope and optimism that it would be is now entirely gone and to our present ears seems quaint if not downright silly. Even worse, the deep gut antipathy toward war that most had in the days after 11-11-18 is also gone. Hollywood came along and its romantic, sanitized, and infantile notions of the hard cruel mess that wars always are have sunk deep into our subconscious and shaped our view of war much for the worse.
With America’s never ending vile and failed wars ongoing, the “served” in quotation marks is entirely appropriate, as the efforts and results of the US military in these wars is nothing for anyone decent to be proud of. No good will come to us from our current wars, nor to the peoples in those lands we invaded. The same was also true for our last big war, Vietnam, and the smaller ones too, like Panama and Grenada since, but the American people just aren’t grown up enough to see it.
What we have nowadays is Veterans Day as just yet another official opportunity by the ruling elites in this country to propagandize further for thoughtless military worship and obedience to (their) authority. Our prints and airwaves stink with pronouncements of how we all need to thank our veterans today and how everything good we have in this country is due to them. It is deliberate deep propaganda for militarism, and for our ongoing foreign wars, and lays the groundwork for more of them to come, and the indecency and obscenity of it galls.
As a kid in Europe in the 1960s, I was impressed at how well the Germans kept their mouths shut about what they had done in the big war twenty or so years earlier. I thought it right and appropriate then and I think the same today. There weren’t any military celebration days that I saw when I was there and I am sure that was the case for the rest of central Europe (the USSR excepted) where the real (and horrendous) part of WWII happened. Not only were the ugly memories of the war still raw to them, but the central/east European countries lacked the politically clean hands to grab the righteous victor’s laurels the way the U.S. did.
I’ve maintained for a good while that we in this country would be wise to emulate them in this regard, but we aren’t going to. We’ve internalized too much of our own propaganda about how right and good we are for that to happen. We don’t have eyes enough to see how dirty our hands are. Too much of Veterans Day is a deliberate distraction from that ugly fact.
Poland was a central European country that had clean hands politically in the war. The Polish army soldiers who surrendered to the USSR (which had lent Hitler a hand with his invasion in 1939 with an invasion of their own) were after Barbarossa in 1941 allowed out of the USSR and formed the Free Polish Army in England and went off to fight the Nazis in Italy. They were universally regarded as the best and bravest infantry in all the Allied armies. They were tasked to take the key German defensive position south of Rome, Monte Cassino, in 1944, and they (and the French colonials) succeeded where the British, Indians, Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders had all failed. That’s the historical backstory to the below poem, written by John Martin, a British cardiologist and poet.
The Second Polish Corps
from The Origins of Loneliness: Poems and Short Stories in Five Moods
by John Martin
My patient lay in the hospital bed
Unshaven, smelling of urine,
And bitten by lice,
Of no fixed abode,
Living in the street,
Without family or friends.
In his Slavic accent
‘I fought at Monte Cassino.’
And my junior doctors in their ignorance
Remained unmoved by man or by history.
And I turned to them
With my hand on the shoulder
Of my patient,
To address them on the greatness
Of the Second Polish Corps
And the infinite value
Of all human beings.
So on this Veterans Day of 2014, we should ignore the usual patriotic hokum about thanking American veterans for their “service,” and instead reflect on the infinite value, and vast potential for greatness, of all human beings. And remember how infinitely little war contributes to any of that.