Soldiers and wars

Remembrance day in Canada, Veteran's day in the U.S., Armistice day in Britain. Soldiers are being honoured today in many countries as they are every November 11, at the 11th hour, when an end came to the war that was supposed to end all wars. We know how that turned out.  My feelings have been uneasy about this day. Not about the willingness of the men and women who actually went to war, not about bravery I can't even contemplate duplicating, not about the losses families suffered and continue to suffer when fathers, brothers and sons, mothers, wives and daughters go to war and don't come home, or come home vastly changed, body and soul. No, instead I feel uneasy because while honouring soldiers, November 11 also seems to glorify war. It's a mixed message and my feelings match it.
Rising black wall of Vietnam Memorial with the names of the
58,209 who died
     One of my brothers, a former U.S. Marine, rides with the Patriot Guard in Arizona, a group that provides motorcycle escorts for military funerals. Through this activity he has learned some fascinating details about former soldiers, including the Navajo code talkers, whose job in both world wars was to transmit coded messages based on their own languages. He and his mates perform a kind service for the families of veterans. Another brother, also a former Marine, served in Vietnam. I know and love these two particular former soldiers and still I feel uneasy, because the problem is separating the soldier from the war.  Nearly 60,000 U.S. personnel died in Vietnam, a war that was widely declared unwinnable long before the U.S. scooted out of Saigon; that the Secretary of Defence of the time admitted was a mistake. Yet men and women, including my brother, were drafted to fight in this battle over political ideologies and criticized when they shipped out. Peace marchers used slogans such as, "what if they gave a war and nobody came?" A sweet, flower-child thought but erring on the side of oversimplification. It wasn't the soldiers' fault, one could say; they were serving their country, stopping the spread of communism, keeping America free. Choose your sound bite. However, some highly ignorant types actually engaged in name calling if not perhaps worse in the presence of those who returned from Vietnam intact and badly not intact.
     The thing is, politicians and dignitaries gather to honour sacrifices made in the name of "freedom," while freedoms are being cut left and right. Governments spy on their own citizens, arrests are made and people imprisoned as a way of stopping terror, whether or not there is any evidence for the accusation. Hmm. And what's worse is that while November 11 is a special day for veterans, the rest of the year they struggle to make a living, struggle to keep the demons away, to deal with injuries that changed their lives forever. The man on the streets of Atlanta on a cold Thanksgiving Eve. Neatly dressed, but hoping for a handout because, as he said, "you might have heard that the U.S. doesn't treat its veterans very well." Same in Canada, where there was renewed spirit and emotion at the National War Memorial in Ottawa this year because a young soldier guarding the cenotaph was shot to death mere weeks ago by a mentally ill man who had used jihad as justification. So, there was more recognition of what soldiers lay on the line, and that's important. But any more money in their pockets, any more help for the mentally and physically ill? That hallelujah day seems nowhere near imminent.
     More than hypocritical, bordering on criminal, is that to manage war these days, at least in the U.S. and infamously during the Iraq War, the government engages private security firms whose corporate directors have been involved in government decisions to go to war in the first place. War generates profits for them. Some of these same people might even attend Veteran's, Armistice, Remembrance Day ceremonies. I hope not.
     I like to watch veterans, generally quite old folks sporting vivid red poppies, gathering in rainy November weather, standing at attention, or marching. I like to think of what their lives may have been like; what mark their wars made on them, if they feel they fought in a just cause. Maybe one day I will be able to do this without also feeling anger at some of the people who stand in the grandstand, grandstanding as usual.