Today is Veteran’s Day, a time when we pause to reflect on the military service of so many within our nation’s history. I confess I struggle with this holiday at times. My struggles began a decade ago when I was asked to pray during a Memorial Day service. My prayer followed music which talked of America demolishing it’s enemies and always being in the right. That service forced me to consider what it means to respect the nation, its symbols and veterans. Coupled with this, I have spoken with a number of veterans who are extremely damaged by their service and will explain how conflicted they are. What has troubled me since that day is how our celebrations seem more concerned with glorifying the nation than with actually caring for the soldiers.
I think all followers of Jesus should desire to be pacifists, but like so many others I am not quite a full pacifist myself. I recognize violence can never end violence.
Those who use the sword will die by the sword. Matthew 26:52b
Yet, I cannot overcome the idea that violence might be necessary to curb violence. I do not know how to overcome such dilemmas; however, I do understand two things well. We should never glorify war or praise it as righteous; war is, at best, a necessary evil. Second, celebrating those who enter military service is as much about lamenting the ugliness they have endured as congratulating the outcomes.
Recently, I read a book War and Moral Injury: A Reader by Robert Emmet Meagher, Douglas A. Pryer et al. The book is a collection of pieces which describe the moral injuries soldiers face as they serve. Many of the reflections and essays are exceptional as they reveal not simply how soldiers are impacted by the events they witness and in which they participate, but also how little America cares. There are essays on Vietnam detailing how politicians and military officers conspired to send men to war who were a liability so the sons of the elite could stay home. Essays on how our tactics for warfare harm our soldiers and create a culture of violence. There are other elements which simply detail the pain and isolation people experience who have seen combat.
As I read the book I thought back to that Memorial Day service as I sat next to a man who had opened up to me about some of the horrors he had witnessed in Vietnam. I recognized the pain in him, this man who understands there was some “good” in his actions but who clearly feels the moral injury of his actions. I think back to a WWII veteran who told me about his horror as one of the soldiers under him snapped and murder German soldiers as they attempted to surrender. That man went to his grave feeling the pain of that act because he was in command.
What I am left with is the recognition that holiday’s like Memorial Day and Veterans Day often tend to glorify the success of the American military. What we need to do is recognize the pain and injury caused by war and commit ourselves to ending the need for further war and violence. What I now realize is that when I celebrate the war and violence, I am celebrating the violence done to American soldiers who participate in the war. If I want to truly honor the work of the veterans, I will honor the difficulties they now face. America does not honor our veterans when we have celebrations of war, we honor our veterans when we commit to healing their injuries (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual). We do nothing to help our veterans when we pretend like there are not serious issues with how this country perceives and executes wars. It certainly was a tragedy how many Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned home, but it was a further tragedy that we as Americans did not hold leaders accountable for how they handled our military.
Veteran’s Day is celebrated on November 11 because that date was the end of WWI. I take that to mean that when we truly celebrate our veterans we end wars, we end the need for soldiers. Again, I recognize ending war may not be possible but I, for one, will look more closely at any war before I support it. I will support policies which seek to bring healing to soldiers who have been harmed by conflict. And I will not support elected or military officials who do not take seriously the policies which directly impact our veterans.