No Comment — November 12, 2007, 2:43 pm

Veterans Day 2007

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2015

Come With Us If You Want to Live

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Body Politic

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Problem of Pain Management

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Game On

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love Crimes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Body Politic·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘He wrote all these love poems, but he was a son of a bitch,’ said a reporter from a wire service.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
Love Crimes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If a man rapes a woman, she might be forced to marry him, because in Afghanistan sex before marriage is dishonorable.”
Photographs © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU
Article
Game On·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had posed a truly existential threat.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Come With Us If You Want to Live·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I was startled that all these negative ideologies could be condensed so easily into a positive worldview.”
Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:

36,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today