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.