|Download PDF of this full issue: v41n1.pdf (28.9 MB)|
The Importance of Remembering
By Derek Griffin
The topic of discussion today is the importance of remembering and taking care of America's veterans. Veterans are asked, either implicitly or explicitly, to fight and die in our name. There are serious, far-reaching consequences that go with such a request. As former US diplomat Joseph Wilson once said, "There is no more solemn decision that a society can make than sending its soldiers off to die and to kill for country." The solemnity that Mr. Wilson speaks of is the very reason we must remember our veterans. Taking care of them is simply the reciprocation of this agreement. Despite evidence to the contrary, service to one's nation is not a one-sided contract. Service members enlist under the assumption that upon the completion of their service, the nation will return the favor, so-to-speak.
This has not always been the case. The darkest moment in US domestic history was the Bonus March of 1932. This forgotten moment in history was marked by a violent attack upon unemployed veterans of World War I who were petitioning Washington for desperately needed financial assistance to which they were entitled. We, as Americans, must remember our veterans because in 1932 we almost completely severed the bond between civilian and veteran. The Bonus March set the precedent of disregarding the special status veterans enjoy. There can be no more deplorable an act than to attack those who sacrificed so completely for our nation. While support for our nation's vets should be so overwhelmingly obvious that it need not be said, history is filled with moments, such as the Bonus March, where we lost our way. Today we are again losing our way.
I came to this regrettable conclusion a few weeks ago after reading an article entitled "Afghanistan: Does Anyone in the US Still Care?" The article was about the war in Afghanistan as it enters its tenth year of US commitment. Now the longest war in US history, the article followed media reporters as they scoured the local Washington DC area for newsworthy stories commemorating such a woeful anniversary. The pickings were slim but a few reporters made it out to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to cover a demonstration held by veterans of the Global War on Terror protesting current defense policies that send wounded and heavily medicated troops back to the front lines. Their campaign was called Operation Recovery and its message was simple: stop deploying military personnel who have been identified as suffering some form of trauma...they have a right to heal. The young vets were protesting this policy in response to recently leaked stories of US soldiers killing innocent Afghans for sport. Ethan McCord, one of about fifteen veterans gathered, said:
"This is what happens to traumatized soldiers that have gone on multiple deployments and we send them to Afghanistan into the same environment that traumatized them to begin with and you place them on psychotropic drugs and then you hand them a weapon and turn them loose on the streets. What do you expect will happen?"
This was not the first time Mr. McCord had been before the peering cameras of the media. He was recently the center of controversy after being captured on video trying to pull two children out of a smoldering van that had just been attacked by US helicopters in Iraq. The video was leaked by now infamous Wikileaks. While the corporate news networks have framed the leaking of this video as a gross breach of state security, others believe it falls under whistleblower protection statutes. Wherever you may fall in this debate, one thing is clear: Ethan McCord speaks from experience and has earned every iota of credibility one could garner him. If we are to remember our veterans and take care of them when they get home, our first task is to listen to what they are telling us.
The aforementioned article was published last month. Since this article, many other poignant articles have been published that are equally critical of the ways in which we remember and take care of our troops and veterans.
In an article published on October 16th in the New York Times and titled After Service, Veteran Deaths Surge, author Aaron Glantz exposed an issue that is all too familiar to the veteran community: That is, there seems to be an inordinately high rate of veteran suicides and other premature deaths among our current crop of combat vets. A study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from the state of California revealed that veterans have been dying at a rate three times higher than those killed in combat. California suicide data showed that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were two and a half times more likely to kill themselves than Californians of the same age groups without military service. These veterans were also twice as likely to die in a car accident and five and a half times more likely to die in a motorcycle accident. These statistics are consistent with Department of Veterans Affairs' figures that report between 1,000 to 2,000 young veterans attempt suicide each month.
Unfortunately, we have not learned from the Vietnam generation. It is not widely known, but more Vietnam veterans died from suicide upon their return home than from combat overseas. It pains me to see this young generation of vets reading from the same sad script as their predecessors. The military will spend millions of dollars transforming recruits into warriors but not enough transforming them back into civilians. We are never taught how to live with the burdens of being a veteran. If we are to truly remember our veterans and take care of their needs, we must first invest in those programs that ease their burdens.
Economic uncertainty or not, veteran care can be funded if we are serious about it. For instance, we created trillions of dollars out of thin air to fund these perpetual wars. If that is the case, we can surely do the same for veteran care. Moreover, if defense contractors can make exorbitant amounts of money by overcharging the government, a war profiteer tax should be instituted to fund the long-term care of our returning veterans. While these may not be politically viable suggestions, we can all agree that they are morally viable.
Three days after the publication of Aaron Glantz's report on California veteran deaths, Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote a scathing indictment of American indifference to the wars and the toll they are taking on the less than one percent of the population that fights in them. The title of the story was "War Rages, Soldiers Suffer, America Sleeps." He claimed in the article that Americans are morally disconnected from the policies enacted in their name and carried out by our armed forces. I must agree with Mr. Norman that there are some glaring facts that paint America as a nation that wears its patriotism on its sleeve all the while ignoring anything that might make us feel guilty about the actual state of America's former fighting men and women. For example, unemployment among returning veterans is twice the national average. Returning veterans are also becoming homeless much quicker than those of the Vietnam generation. Roughly 13% of America's entire homeless population is comprised of vets. In fact, female vets are four times more likely to end up homeless than the population at large. As Mr. Norman candidly pointed out, "That there is a single homeless soldier should provoke national outrage, but it doesn't because these vets and the wars they fight are invisible." While the tone of Mr. Norman's story may turn some people off, the facts are still disconcerting and need to be earnestly addressed.
The last of the articles I am presenting was published three days after Mr. Norman's diatribe. Bob Herbert, columnist for the New York Times, in his op-ed entitled "The Way We Treat Our Troops," took a slightly different angle. His assertion was that an all volunteer force is undemocratic. Democracies are based on majoritarian rule yet the very few predominate national service while the remaining ninety-nine percent have the option of living their lives completely oblivious to those who fight in their name. Mr. Herbert would bring back the draft and is quite explicit about that. He is sick and tired of reading about cases like Sergeant First Class Lance Vogeler, a 29-year-old soldier who was killed in action a few weeks ago after surviving twelve previous deployments. SFC Vogeler had a wife, two kids and one on the way. One must wonder if his kids will even remember a man who served four deployments in Iraq and eight in Afghanistan.
There is something intrinsically wrong with asking our already exhausted and overextended service members to fight these wars in perpetuity while we go about our daily lives unaffected. Americans can throw yellow ribbon magnets on their cars, wear American flag t-shirts, and sing patriotic country music songs until their heart is content; the fact of the matter is that these things are of little consequence. None of them require any amount of sacrifice. After September 11th we were not asked to sacrifice by our leaders. Instead, we were encouraged to go shopping. I do not want to paint all Americans as apathetic and consumeristic but how many of us, besides the veterans and their families, have endured hardships for these wars? We either fight as a nation or do not fight at all.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are not living in the 1940's anymore. The rich are no longer taxed at a 90% tax bracket to finance our wars. For all the renewed vigor about tax rates, Americans, especially rich Americans, are not taxed enough... sometimes not at all. In fact, with deficit spending and supplemental funding bills, Americans get their wars without having the unpleasant task of having to figure out a way to pay for them. I am sure our grandchildren can figure out how to pay down the three to five trillion dollars these wars will ultimately cost when life-long care for disabled veterans is factored into the final total.
Americans of the "Greatest Generation" did not plaster "Support the Troops" stickers all over the public square because they were asked to sacrifice and were only too grateful to do so. Indeed, America in the 1940's did not believe in empty gestures like shopping trips. In fact, during the 1940's shopping trips would have been impossible as many durable goods went out of production so that those raw materials could go towards the war effort. Not being able to purchase an iPhone or even a car because of our current wars is probably unfathomable for today's America. Yesteryear's America was more concerned with creating national unity and enacting programs of support that actually helped. Conscription, victory gardens, war bonds, and rationing, for example, not only helped the war effort, but created an unspoken bond between those being fought for at home and those doing the fighting abroad. We need to reinvigorate that bond.
That said, we just experienced an election cycle where nearly all candidates avoided issues such as veteran care and the wars like the plague. Sure, the economy is a pressing issue but are we really so naïve to think that the wars and the economy are mutually exclusive? As I see it, the only way to bring these issues back to the forefront is either by significantly raising taxes (especially on the wealthiest) and/or reinstating the draft. Without these, the status quo shall remain. Americans will remain willfully ignorant of what is happening to our heroes until it affects them personally. Whatever course we take, we have a moral, civic, and economic responsibility to our veterans yet, as the evidence shows, have allowed entirely too many to slip through the cracks.
In summation, we may be losing our way, but we are not lost. I am confident we can restore the relationship between citizen and soldier by making our remembrance and care of veterans the example by which other nations emulate. However, this lofty goal can only be attained when we realize that support means nothing without sacrifice. Furthermore, it is also unattainable if we ignore vets and their plight because we have not been personally inconvenienced by foreign policy. If the words "Sacrifice for our Troops" graced yellow ribbons, I would not be criticizing America's commitment to veterans. Instead, we hide behind these mere symbols of support as if to ward off potential challenges to our patriotism. This is disingenuous and I think Americans are better than this. Deep down, all of us know that support must mean sacrifice and open ears, not yellow ribbons.
Derek Giffin, a soldier who was in Baghdad in 2004/05 and who is a member of IVAW, presented this speech to the annual Veteran's Day celebration last November (2010) at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN.