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In America, virtually all holidays tend quickly to disintegrate into special sale opportunities for the shopping malls. And Veterans Day in particular seems to be on a drift away from its original purpose. To many Americans, it is a light working day, or a day to spend doing some house chores or early holiday shopping. For American politicians, it seems to be the day on which to stake out the memory of those who served–to invoke it in support of whatever defense-related political position they support at the moment. All of that cheapens what is and should be an important commemoration: a day to honor and give thanks to those who served in conflict, thanks for their service and sacrifice. Originally, of course, it was Armistice Day, and it marked the moment of the 1918 ceasefire in the trenches of Europe, at 11:11 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. As Veterans Day, the scope was widened.
I reproduced two poems to mark Veterans Day this year. They reflect radically different perspectives. The first is Langston Hughes’s “The Colored Soldier,” a bitter take on what it meant to be a black veteran returning from the Great War. Thousands of black Americans were recruited into the military in that conflict. They were told that things would be different when they got home, that the world of Jim Crow would not apply to the veterans. But this was, as Hughes wrote, a lie. Black soldiers who came home faced the lash and brutality across the country, but especially in the South. Langston Hughes reminds us of the promise not kept.
That’s a critical part of what Veterans Day should mean—the country needs to pay attention to its promises to veterans and to honor them. This is, it seems, the only day of the year on which that happens. As we approach Veterans Day 2007, reports circulate about the hard landing faced by many veterans of the Iraq War. The Boston Globe reports today:
On any given night in 2006, an estimated 196,000 veterans were homeless in America, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington nonprofit. Over the course of the year, nearly a half-million veterans were homeless.
Veterans are at risk. Many grapple with traumatic brain injuries, the loss of limbs, posttraumatic stress disorder, and mental illness. Some need to find jobs and housing. Others lack social ties to family and friends, especially after having served on long tours of duty. According to the alliance, as many as 467,000 veterans may be at risk of losing their homes because they are poor and spending more than half of their income on rent.
The Bush Administration is long on words and short on performance when it comes to veterans’ issues; but the responsibility for this shortcoming has to rest on society as a whole and not just the Bush Administration. The Washington Post’s disclosures last year about conditions in Walter Read Hospital gave a crash course on this point. The homelessness issue is a second one. Americans need to remember that the debt owed to veterans should be considered more than just one day a year.
I also reproduced Walt Whitman’s great “Dirge for Two Veterans,” a sad, sentimental, and beautiful work that honors veterans at their time of passing. That’s also an important part of this commemoration. But more important, I think, is the promise of reintegration. Veterans must be given every opportunity to overcome the disabilities that service carried with it, and should be allowed to rejoin civilian life in a dignified way that gives real meaning to the statement: “thank you for your service.” That’s part of the fundamental compact our society makes with those who enter into uniformed service. And society is not keeping its part of the bargain.
More from Scott Horton:
No Comment — November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm
An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath
No Comment — August 12, 2013, 7:55 am
How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?
No Comment — July 29, 2013, 11:36 am
Is it possible to simply disband the partisan FISA court?
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Rank of Detroit among major U.S. cities whose residents give the largest portion of their income to charity:
A South Dakota researcher concluded that only scant blood spatter results when chain saws are used to dismember pigs.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature