The anniversary of Armistice Day was set aside to commemorate the armistice on November 11th 1918, the end of fighting in World War One, with ‘thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations’. By 1954, since the war to end all wars, hadn’t, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a day to honor American Veterans of all wars. No longer was it a day to pause in silence at eleven in the morning on November 11th to commemorate peace between nations, it was a day to honor the veterans of the growing list of wars. With the swipe of a pen, President Eisenhower changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, no longer commemorating peace, rather, glorifying war. There is no longer a place for peace on Armistice Day. Even in Boston, Veterans for Peace aren’t allowed to march in the ‘official’ Veterans Day parade. The members of Boston’s Smedley D. Butler Brigade of Veterans for Peace are no less veterans than anyone else that served. The late activist, author, veteran and historian Howard Zinn was an active member of VFP in Boston, a chapter that counts both UMass Boston students and professors among its ranks.
So, what does Veterans Day mean to me? It’s a reminder of the battles that lay ahead if we want the country that we thought we were fighting for and swore an oath to protect. There have been homeless veterans from every war in our nation’s history, with a growing number from the wars of the past decade joining the ranks of the aging, forgotten veterans that comprise 1/3 of America’s homeless, according to conservative VA estimates. Nearly a quarter million veterans are living on the streets or in shelters on any given night, and with over a decade of wars (hopefully) winding down, those numbers are likely to increase. While homelessness is certainly a huge problem that is often swept under the rug, according to the Army Times, an average of 22 veterans are committing suicide a day, with more than 5 of those happening in VA care. The military has been losing more active duty members to suicide than to combat for the past few years. God bless America. While many people know who won the super bowl, I would guess that far fewer know anything about veterans besides what the government wants them to know, besides things like the GI Bill and the fact that today they’re not drafted.
It was only after being honorably discharged from the army (my second and final branch) that I learned about the sacrifices of the Bonus Army of 1932, WW1 veterans risking life and limb in Washington DC to get something that was promised to them and that they deserved. General MacArthur, who once called Smedley Butler the best general he had ever known, led the active duty army against Butler and the WW1 veterans, killing some and wounding many. Their tents and shacks along the Anacostia River were burned to the ground by MacArthur and his men. They weren’t even silencing dissent, they were silencing WW1 veterans who were crying out, not for a handout but for a bonus they were promised for fighting their war. The depression had forced many from their farms and homes and, unable to feed their families, these veterans asked the government to make good on a promise. It’s true that the bonus wasn’t to be paid until the 1940’s, but these men had risked their lives for the country and were starving to death and dying in the streets. The dollar a day that trench warfare brought them was seen as too little, so they were given bonus certificates, equal to an additional 25-50 cents for every day that they were at war. The government thought that they should wait 20 years to cash these bonuses out. They waited as long as they could. They didn’t get the bonus in 1932, it passed the house but not the senate. The movement failed, but it is a large reason that WW2 veterans got the Montgomery GI Bill, and that we have the Post-9/11 GI Bill today- the government not wanting to deal with 10’s of thousands of vets and their families in DC ever again, they were willing to drop a few crumbs from the table to make it look like they care. It’s an easy argument for them today, ‘they volunteered’ as 5-deferment war criminal Dick Cheney said about those fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s what he would have been doing in Vietnam, but he said that he had ‘more important things to do’
It’s with this argument that they attempt to silence us. Yes, we volunteered, as anyone can at 18 years of age, or at 17 with parental consent…but we don’t trust an 18 year old with a pistol, or alcohol, or with renting a vehicle or going on a cruise alone since they are ‘too immature’ at that age. Recruiters aren’t lining up at 10 year high school reunions. I knew nothing at 18. Sure, I had a high school diploma but all that meant was that I was an obedient citizen. Public schools aren’t all that conducive to learning, to really engaging the material and learning. Sure, they drill you with facts and numbers and important dates. They give you books to read and standardized tests to take. It’s an assembly line. I’m curious how many kids graduating from the ‘prestigious’ Deerfield Academy or other private schools, enlist in the military. If you want a good education, ya gotta pay top dollar for it. If you want your kids to question authority, don’t send them to a public school. I drank the kool aid. Yes I volunteered, but I was an immature, naive 18 year old, and saw few options other than entering the family business of roofing, a trade that cost my Korean War veteran grandfather his life. I bought into the propaganda that followed 9/11. Many of us didn’t stop to question the xenophobia of the day. I waved a flag, hell, I taped one to the antenna of my truck. Both grandfathers, all of my great uncles, half of my uncles, a number of cousins, friends and neighbors had served in every war since WW2. It was a rite of passage. After leaving the football field behind and felling a lot of deer, it was the next step in proving masculinity, at least in the world I was socialized in. Throw a few Toby Keith and Alan Jackson songs, and some Metallica into the mix and the recruiters didn’t have to twist my arm. I was the one knocking on their door.
Money for college? Icing on the cake. Though I never thought I’d go to college, not one teacher at my high school ever encouraged me or let me know it was possible for me to go. I never got even a 5 minute conversation about it. The guidance counselor actually suggested that the military was probably my best option. At a time when some kids are looking into what college to go to, I was looking into what branch to join. I loved to write, I hated math, I was bothered by how thin the history we learned seemed to be. I wasn’t dumb, but I got to the point that the only reason I didn’t drop out was because I enjoyed playing football, and didn’t want to let my teammates down. I thought I hated reading; I just hated reading boring books telling a selective version of our history. I thought I hated learning; I just hated learning a bunch of useless, pointless information, memorizing facts that have never helped me as an adult. I don’t blame my parents; neither of them had gone to college. I don’t blame my sister, she tried to talk me into going but she was the bookworm of the family, I figured she was just being nice in thinking that I was college material. People like us didn’t go to college. In part, because we can’t afford. If she wasn’t a genius that graduated at the top of her class, she wouldn’t have gone. Well, maybe to a community college but certainly not to Smith College, the Private all woman’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. My brother is just as naturally smart as my sister but he was written off by his teachers early on. He gave up and graduated by the skin of his teeth. He’d have been a prime candidate for the military were it not for youthful legal problems brought on by drugs, alcohol, and a few broken hearts.
If public high schools produced critical thinkers rather than obedient citizens we would need to reinstitute the draft. Yes, they need us to be able to read and write and memorize things and score well on standardized tests, but more so than anything, they need us to be able to follow orders for when we enter the workforce or, more importantly, the military. Follow orders and never question authority. Dick Cheney was right, I did volunteer. Even as a naive 18 year old though, I volunteered to serve my community and country- (if that’s what I was actually doing, I’d still be in). I didn’t realize at that point that ‘country’ and ‘government’ were separate things and that the government- our elected ‘representatives’ were beholden to the corporations that help finance their campaigns, more so than they were to ‘we the people’. They didn’t need a draft; they created a system that produces enough lambs annually that are happy to run to the slaughter, thinking that it is to protect millions of their fellow lambs. When TV shows, video games, movies, magazines and even high school text books are coming from corporations with many $ many $ many $ reason$ to keep the military healthy, how can you even say that volunteering was really a choice? Is it a shock that a lot of people that were socialized by this system are willing to fight and die for it when they are still kids, still not even old enough to be trusted to drink a beer? We were victims of Stockholm syndrome. For my COUNTRY, I’d still fight and die. For my government, well… I’ll keep paying taxes like the poor kid giving his school lunch money to the wealthy bully. On second thought, maybe I won’t. I was taught to stand up to bullies, no matter how big they are. Don’t get me wrong, I love America and am proud to be an American… I just hate the government. I’m tired of watching people wake up at 50 years old to realize that the American dream is the biggest, ugliest lie ever told, realizing that the country and the government are not one and the same, realizing that war is indeed a racket, as the late Brigadier General and two time medal of honor recipient Smedley Butler called it eighty years ago.
It’s true that the GI Bill is an opportunity for many veterans to get an education (an education we had to sell our soul to get)… but it’s not an opportunity if they are homeless or living in a shelter, taking a laundry list of prescription pills or self-medicating, or killing themselves. As one of my best friends, a fellow veteran, puts it, veterans ‘got to have a peek behind the curtain’ and see how the system operates, to see that many of those we label ‘terrorist’ are doing nothing different than you or I would do if a foreign military occupied the United States. Nothing more than the native Hawaiians did before they were out gunned. Better to fight them in Baghdad than Boston, right? Instilling fear in the local population, in innocent civilians, that’s not winning hearts and minds. Many of us see this and come home to a country that forgot we are at war, a country that thanks us for our service in a war that was of no concern to the American people but of great concern to a whole host of corporations. You can’t slap a yellow ribbon magnet over a Gold Star. Halliburton and Northrop Grumman’s bottom line won’t keep a veteran or a soldier from killing himself or herself, or burying themselves in addiction. As Brigadier General Smedley Butler once said, if you take the profit out of war there will be no more war, ‘I was a high class muscle man for wall street’. I say we pass an amendment that requires the children of all politicians, past, present and future, to serve in the military and not be exempt from combat. Let them sacrifice their own sons and daughters along with the rest of us poor and working class folks. There are certainly an awful lot of poor, white farm kids in the infantry, but the role of the grunt is disproportionately played by poor and working class black and brown kids, who might well think twice about enlisting if they knew their real history, a history that saw the American empire do to their ancestors, what it is doing to millions of other black and brown people half a world away. This wouldn’t be possible without the dehumanization of these groups, as many in our military have themselves been dehumanized. It’s a vicious cycle. So it goes.
If we honor veterans, this includes those being beaten by riot police for peacefully protesting corporate greed, and for wanting a representative government, and for wanting a voice, for wanting the America we grew up thinking we had. This includes all veterans, especially the homeless and those killing themselves. Uncle Sam is letting our brothers and sisters kill themselves and sleep under bridges and drink and drug themselves to death. If the government won’t let us talk, won’t let us assemble, won’t let us speak the truth and ask questions, they should zap our memories the way they did in the movie Men in Black, or take us out back and shoot us. They let us peek behind that big governmental curtain, and see that the great Oz is nothing more than a cowardly con-man, now they expect us not to talk? If we don’t acknowledge the cold, hard facts about veterans, that we’re not all using the GI Bill and living happily ever after, that many of those that politicians wearing American flag lapel pins call heroes are killing themselves or are homeless, kept out of sight and mind. If we don’t acknowledge the realities of the wars we fight, who profits and who pays, whether we are really any safer or not, if it was all worth it, if the next wars that are already being planned are going to be worth it or not… if we don’t look into who profits from war and see the influence they have over politicians, if we don’t wake up and pull our heads out of the sand, if we aren’t allowed to question, or be even mildly critical of our foreign policy- we will continue to get screwed by the government and the war profiteers. They’ll keep giving our boys and girls medals and money for college, and our boys and girls will keep coming home broken, as lost souls, they’ll continue to drink and drug away the pain, continue to live in the streets in numbers disproportionately higher than the rest of the population, and continue to kill themselves in greater and greater numbers, statistics that will continue to be lost on the corporate media and hidden from middle America. Twenty-two veterans a day, according to the most recent VA statistics, and that is a very conservative estimate.
If you don’t like what I have to say, that’s cool. We can talk if you’d like, so long as you’re respectful and your opinion isn’t based off of CNN, FOX, MSNBC and the like. If you don’t respect my right to say it, well, that doesn’t bother me.
I’d rather have a voice than a day. I’d rather see a real effort to end addiction, homelessness and suicide among veterans than a holiday and a parade with people waving flags and saying thank you.