Complexities involving alternatives to Washington’s war-making urges are, of course, not part of the national conversation on Veterans Day. Instead, we are promised that war and this country’s warriors will somehow redeem us as a nation.
The unimaginable losses to families, communities, infrastructure and culture in the lands where such conflicts have been fought in this century are invisible to most citizens, while typical Veterans Day commemorations recast you as messianic redemptive figures who “have paid the price for our freedom.”
But to convert war-making into something sacred means fashioning a deceitful myth. Violence is not a harmless tool. It’s not a coat that a person wears and takes off without consequences. Violence instead brutalises human beings to their core; chains people to the forces of dehumanisation; and, over time, eats away at you like acid dripping into your very soul.
That same dehumanisation also undermines democracy, something you would never know from the way the United States glorifies its wars as foundational to what it means to be an American.
Meanwhile, citizens rush to “thank you for your service.” You’re allowed to board airplanes first and given discounts at the nation’s amusement parks. Veterans Day only exacerbates your sickening commodification, as all those big box stores, other corporations, and financial institutions use you to try to increase their profits (like the bank in my town last year with its newspaper ad: “Freedom isn’t Free: Veterans Paid Our Way. Thank you. Embassy Bank”).
These dynamics silence the truths you carry within you. I’ve heard you say that you often find it impossible to tell the rest of us, even family members, what really happened. You struggle with feelings of alienation from civilian culture, unable to express your anger or describe your struggles with deep-seated shame, guilt, resentment, and disgust.
Your military service often left you with debilitating physical and psychological injuries and even deeper “moral injuries.” Veteran and author Michael Yandell struggles to describe this ruinous self-disintegration, writing “I despaired of myself, and of the very world.” Borne out of the crushing suffering that is the world of war, some of you experienced moral pain that grew to an intolerable level.
There was no longer any world left that you could trust or believe in, no values anywhere, anymore. And yet, you represent such a small percentage of the population – less than one per cent of us join the military – while disproportionately shouldering such a painful legacy from the last 20 years of American war-making across significant parts of the planet.
More often than not, the invisible wounds of returning veterans are shrouded in silence. For some of you, unbearable pain led to disastrous consequences, including self-harm, loss of relationships, isolation, and self-destructive risk-taking.
At least one in three female members of the armed forces has experienced sexual assault or harassment from fellow service members. More than 17 of you veterans take your own lives every day. And you live with all of this, while so much of the rest of the nation fails to muster the will to see you, hear you, or face honestly the American addiction to war.
The truths about war that you might tell us are generally rejected and invalidated, cementing you into a heavy block of silence. Military chaplain Sean Levine describes how the US must “deny the trauma of its warriors lest that trauma radically redefine our understanding of war.” He continues, “Blind patriotism has done inestimable damage to the souls of thousands of our returning warriors.”
If we civilians paid attention to your honesty, we would find ourselves slammed headlong into a conflict with a national culture that glorifies war, conceals the political and material interests of the titans of weaponry and war production, and successfully distracts us from the depth of its destruction.
We civilians are complicit and so lurch away from facing the inevitable revulsion, sorrow, mourning, and guilt that always accompany the reality of war.
Honestly, the only way forward is for you to tell – and us to compassionately take in – the unadulterated stories of war. One Vietnam veteran vividly described what war did to him this way:
“I went to war when I was a little over twenty – not a child, but not yet an adult. When I arrived at the Cleveland airport after my tour of duty in Vietnam, I just sat down paralysed with befuddled emotions. I didn’t even call my parents to tell them I was home. I was afraid my family would expect to see the person I was, and not accept the person I had become; that they would not forgive me for what I had done and not done in Vietnam. How could they when I couldn’t forgive myself? Like some toxic virus morphing in a Petri dish, the war infected my moral DNA. I came home no longer thinking with the same mind, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears.”
When you speak out and tell truths this way, you exemplify the epitome of citizenship, as well as courage, vulnerability and a commitment to hope. Such revelations show that the light of your conscience wasn’t quashed by war. Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Buddhist international peace activist, pointed the way forward for veterans and the rest of us alike when he wrote:
“Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war.”
The resulting trauma from war’s inevitable dehumanisation is not yours alone. War-culture in this country leaves us with a residual collective trauma that weighs us all down and is only made worse by a national blindness to it.
As a civilian on Veterans Day, I hope to support the creation of spaces where your voices resoundingly are heard, and your faces seen. Together, we must determine how best to do the work of rehumanising our world. Jack Saul, from the International Trauma Studies Program, reminds us that listening is “deeply humanising” because it generates the healing power of empathy. Compassionate listening spaces “strengthen our connections to others and ourselves, and ultimately make society better.”
This Veterans Day I’m taking part in a “Community Healing Ceremony” through the Moral Injury Program in Philadelphia where I and other civilians will witness the strength of veterans offering testimony about the evil of war in their lives.
Hearing your words will clarify my own understanding, vision and resolve. Listening can be transformative, helping tear down the deceitful myths of war-culture, while building honesty and a willingness to see our world as it is. Let me finish by thanking you, the veterans of our wars, for your truth-telling. Your contribution is invaluable in this embattled world of ours.
- A TomDispatch report / Kelly Denton-Borhaug