Published by Truthdig.com on November 11, 2015
Gravestones on Veterans Day at San Francisco National Cemetery. (Jeff Chiu / AP)
On Veterans Day, we are told to remember soldiers who fought in wars. We are expected to fly flags, march in parades and, perhaps most importantly for corporate America, shop at a Veterans Day sale.
In a White House proclamation to mark the occasion, President Obama equated serving in war with being charitable:
The brave men and women of our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard demonstrate a resolute spirit and unmatched selflessness, and their service reminds us there are few things more American than giving of ourselves to make a difference in the lives of others.
But fighting in war is anything but charitable. War is based on nationalist beliefs about the supremacy of one country over another. It certainly makes a “difference in the lives of others,” but usually for the worse.
The main thrust of Obama’s proclamation centered on getting vets the medical help and social support they need after experiencing trauma on the battlefield. Obama declared, “Our true strength as a nation is measured by how we take care of our veterans when they return home.”
Veteran care may be one measure of our strength, but is it more important than how we commit men and women to fight wars in the first place? The true strength of any nation ought to be measured by how effectively it ensures the well-being of its residents. Sending troops to war is the opposite of that.
While politicians offer syrupy rhetoric, for corporate America, Veterans Day is simply another occasion to reap profits. Companies are increasingly offering sales linked to the day, apparently to keep up the shopping momentum between Halloween and Black Friday. A spokesperson for Military.com told NBC News, “The longer we are at war, the more folks want to say thank you. … Over the course of 13, 14 years of war it’s gotten to be more of a tradition.” While some retailers are touting discounts exclusively for military personnel as a way to thank them for their service, most have storewide sales for everyone.
But behind the facade of patriotism are tragic statistics that show returning soldiers killing themselves at rates of about 50 percent higher than the general public. Domestic violence is so common among veterans that more than a fifth of all instances nationally are attributed to them. Rape among troops enrolled in the military is rampant; 25 percent of female troops report being raped during service, which adds to the post-traumatic stress disorder they often experience as veterans. While the rates of veteran homelessness and unemployment have dropped as a result of targeted government assistance, they remain significantly higher than among the general public.
Rarely are these harsh statistics discussed on Veterans Day. Instead, politicians and we in the media trot out patriotic platitudes, such as “honoring all who served,” and “thank you for protecting our freedom.”
Even more rarely are veterans themselves asked what they think of how this day is marked. In an interview on “Uprising,” Hart Viges, a combat veteran who served in Iraq, told me in simple terms: “Veterans Day to me is a glorification of war.”
“They want to share that particular ideology that ‘war is good,’ and that we’re out there protecting America, like in a John Wayne flick,” he added.
Viges explained that he joined the U.S. Army “because of 9/11.” In fact, he was at the recruiting office on Sept. 12, 2001, and was in the earliest contingents deployed to Iraq in 2003. “At that time, I thought I was going to go and be the good guy and rid the world of evil,” he said. “That didn’t seem the case once I immersed myself and went to Iraq and saw the war as it was.”
Viges was a combat soldier for just under a year, mostly in Baghdad. He speaks like a man who experiences the effects of trauma on a daily basis. When asked how long he served in the military, he knew the answer to the minute: “Three years, two months, 22 days, until 2:13 p.m.”
The triumphalism of war grates on Viges. “I hate being called a ‘hero,’ ” he said emphatically. “I’m not a hero for what I did over there.” He recounted incidents in which young Iraqi men who were detained by U.S. soldiers for simply breaking curfew were treated like suspected terrorists. “I realized I was a bully,” he mused. “That’s the one thing that I detest, [and] I became.”
Although it has been well over a decade since his combat mission in Iraq ended, he struggles daily with PTSD. “My life is like a constant watchdog for triggers,” he told me. “And if I lose my discipline for a moment a day or two, I can easily fall back into self-destructive behavior.”
Viges’ cynicism about war runs deep. He quoted Sun Tzu: “All war is based on deception.” He added, “Anything that they try to tell us, that the war is drawing down, that the war is over, I will never believe.” Like many soldiers in the early 2000s, when he was first deployed he was promised a six-month tour of duty, which then stretched to nearly a year. Today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue indefinitely, despite Obama promising discrete endings. Now those wars have expanded to Syria and Yemen.
“They’re never going to stop it,” said Viges. “They don’t want it to stop. They want it to go on and on and on. It’s up to us to stop it.”
Viges has taken personal responsibility for his role in the Iraq War. “I don’t know if I could ever really make up for what I did over there,” he said. He participates in counter-recruitment work in high schools, sharing with eager kids the true personal and political cost of war. In an example of how he approaches the issue, he offers young people the choice of “which supervillain do they want to fight—war, racism, poverty, ecocide or sexism?”
“It’s probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” he told me. “I see the change, I see the listening in their faces. This is really the way to stop militarism—to stop it before it starts.”
This Veterans Day, rather than thanking those who were in the military, let’s talk about what we do to soldiers when we send them to war, and how we can stop.