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Veterans Day: Can We Honor the Service of Veterans?

November 12, 2007

I had not intended to write a post on Veteran’s Day. I deeply oppose the current war, and though not quite ready to commit to complete pacifism, in light of the manifest failure of modern warfare to produce anything but a vicious cycle of depravity and bloodshed, I am skeptical of any claims that modern warfare could ever be just. Yet, wishing to be respectful and charitable to those who have undeniably sacrificed so much in causes in which they and much of our society have so fervently believed, I thought it best to leave the day pass in silence.

But a thoughtful Veterans day post by Henry Karlson on Vox Nova and the flurry of comments surrounding it convinces me that modern war poses a genuine dilemma for Christians that we should not dodge. Knowing what we know of the depravity of this war, and the institution of modern warfare in general, can we honor the service of veterans?

Karlson and many of the commentators argue that we can honor veterans, even when they are engaged in a deplorable war, by separating the virtuous soldier from the deplorable war. As Karlson put it:


One who desires peace does not have to be opposed to the military. They should respect those who take up service because that is exactly what it is, service, and service for the sake of others is a high calling reflecting in part the service Christ has done for us. That their service can be abused should not be used to denigrate the service itself.”


It’s an attractive sentiment. Certainly I share the desire to recognize that the soldier remains fully human, that he or she can embark on the work of warfare with noble intentions. But to separate the soldier from the structure of destructive violence in which he or she is engaged is to ignore the reality of their situation, compounding the physical violence which they have experienced with the symbolic violence of ignoring or sentimentalizing their experience. Ultimately I have to conclude that sentimental efforts to honor the troops undermine our ability to support the troops.

Consider the case of Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller, made famous in L.A. Times photographer Luis Sinco’s iconic photo from the November 2004 assault on Fallujah. The photo ran on the front page of over 150 newspapers on November 10, and Dan Rather honored the then unknown marine with a rhapsodic tribute (click on portrait of a soldier video) that echoed every Veteran’s Day speech ever made. “This is a warrior with his eyes on the far horizon, scanning for danger. See it. Study it. Absorb it. Think about it. Then take a deep breath of pride. And if your eyes don’t dampen, you’re a better man or woman than I.” james-blake-miller-los-angeles-times-photo-by-luis-sinco.jpg

Rather even went on to acknowledge the moral ambiguity of the Iraq war in a way that sounds very much like Karlson’s position: “Whatever you may think of the war, they went for the right reason. They love their country. May these men and women of honor, valor, integrity and loyalty know that they, their deeds and sacrifices are not forgotten.”

The L.A. Times quickly did a follow-up story that revealed Miller’s identity, which was reported the following week by CBS News and media outlets around the country. But as subsequent stories in the Times reported, Miller suffered terrible mental trauma from the war, and his life quickly became increasingly difficult as he tried to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. Miller tells his story in a powerful video illustrated by more photos by Luis Sinco, who set aside journalistic objectivity to reach out to try help the soldier he had made unwittingly and unwillingly famous.

As Christians, how are we called to reach out to our soldiers. By sentimentally honoring them, or by supporting them?

Supporting the troops in a representative democracy requires three things:

  1. Making sure that troops are only sent into morally and practically justifiable situations. Our failure to support the troops in this way is nothing less then tragic. Nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died in a war with stated aims that range from demonstrable lies to naive fantasies and that lacks any feasible exit strategy. And we have yet to have a coherent national debate about this war. The sentimental language of honor makes the essential task more difficult.
  2. Supporting public policies that provide the necessary resources for physical and psychological healing. We are failing here as well. It may feel good to praise the virtues of soldiers, but words are cheap. Medical treatment is costly. Whatever we say, we owe it to our soldiers to pay the cost.
  3. Reintegrating returning soldiers fully into our society. If we are honest, this may be the hardest part of supporting the troops, for it must begin not with our words, but theirs. We must let soldiers tell their own story. It may not be the story we want to hear, but we owe it to them to listen.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2007 6:50 am

    Notice I also pointed out another solution: to take the work that soldiers in the past did to help create a free and just society and to work for that free and just society — by other means since we can do so. It is more than mere sentiment, but continuing the work of the past in a new (and hopefully better) way.

  2. November 14, 2007 4:30 am

    Henry — Thanks for the reply, and your original post which challenges those of against the current war and skeptical of warfare in general to think about how we should recognize the very real sacrifices and noble intentions of soldiers.

    But I have two problems with your suggestion that we can build upon the work that “soldiers in the past did to help create a free and just society.”

    First, I am not exactly sure which soldiers, and which war you are referring to here. How far are we going back? Certainly in our society today there is great nostalgia for World War II, the last “Good” i.e. morally unproblematic war, and the contributions of “the greatest generation” — so I’ll take that as the reference point.

    Though I in no way want to deny the often noble intentions and tremendous sacrifices of WW II soldiers, popular mythology reduces WW II to the toppling of the evil Nazi regime, and the successfully defense of America from the direct attack from the Japanese. True at a superficial level, but when you situate WW II in its broader historical context its legacy becomes more complex and problematic. The Third Reich was itself a product of war, and the failure of a European system that made war the final and only arbeiter of conflicts between nations; military victory in Europe and Asia did not only end the Nazi regime and the Japanese empire, but opened the long conflict with the Soviet Union that was carried out in a series of proxy wars around the globe whose total contribution to human misery might arguably exceed WW I and II combined.

    I don’t pretend that the arguments sketched out in the previous paragraph are conclusive. But at the least, they suggest that there is good ground to question whether modern warfare every has or every could contribute to a “more free and just” world.

    In a world spinning violently out of control, we desperately need to question the logic of war. The language of military honor makes such an interrogation all but impossible. Our soldiers are honorable, therefore their cause must have been honorable, therefore war must be honorable. I’m skeptical that we can build a new an hopefully better way while honoring the contributions of soldiers in the past.

    A second problem I have with your suggestion is that it makes a distinction between the honorable soldiers of our past wars, popularly held to be just and morally unproblematic, and those in our recent and present morally ambiguous ones. The marginalization and stigmatization of Vietnam veterans rested on just such a distinction. That’s not a road I think we should go down.

    So my recognition of the sacrifice and noble intentions of our soldiers will be rooted in an ethic of support, not honor.

  3. October 8, 2008 3:42 pm

    in my opinion everyone should be honoring those who risked their lives for us and we should all appreciate them more than once a year.

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