About Veterans Day

Imagine if some of us were in our cups—let’s say we had a day off and a backyard big enough to social-distance—and the topic turned to military service. I guarantee that long before we reached the dregs, veritas would come spilling out: We have very different ideas on what “service” means.

Some see it as necessary or heroic, for example; others as indentured servitude, softened by college money and home loans; yet others as a battleground of class and race, at home and abroad. The President has reportedly said military service is for “suckers” and “losers.” Alabama’s new senator cheapens the memory of the service of millions in defeating National Socialism, when he says he believes his “dad fought 76 years ago in Europe to free Europe of socialism” as part of a political stunt.

If beliefs about military service are this muddled, it is no wonder the significance of Veterans Day might vary.

For instance, we have Memorial Day to honor the dead, but historically Veterans Day is based on Armistice Day, which Woodrow Wilson said was meant to be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service” in WWI.

After WWII, a veteran from Alabama lobbied for the day to be “for all veterans,” and in 1954 Congress exchanged the word “Armistice” for “Veterans.” In 1968 the Uniform Holiday Bill ensured “four national holidays on Mondays: Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day. It was thought that these extended weekends would encourage travel, recreational and cultural activities and stimulate greater industrial and commercial production.”

Since Vietnam, the US Department of Veterans Affairs says, the day has been meant to be a “celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”

You might be surprised that 75 years after the end of WWII there is not consensus on what all this means. Does the spirit of the day also apply to those who served during periods of conflict, but far from it? They might, after all, have been expected to deploy but never did. And in the age of IEDs and other irregular warfare, many who did not expect to be in combat were still in harm’s way.

And what about peacetime service? A friend who did two tours with an infantry unit in Afghanistan believes all those who served in the decades of the Cold War (apart from Korea and Vietnam) should not be called veterans, just “prior service.” (The federal government does not extend hiring preferences and other benefits to most of those.)

What about Reservists and National Guardsmen who met infrequently and never left their states? What if they were injured or killed in training?

The tension causes carefully-worded statements from those who served, like this one from a Facebook user this week: “I served but did not have the honor of serving my country in war time. Proud of the veterans that I served with. Respect to all who have served. Thankful to our great country for giving me the honor of serving. Happy Veterans Day! HOOAH!”

What’s more, it is true that, like any piety, “Thank you for your service” is a simplicity and often a political tool. It does not even differentiate between Hugh Thompson Jr. and William Calley Jr.

Many vets share running jokes about Veterans Day and other civilian gestures. The main one is, Print out the photo you posted of yourself in uniform and take it down to the Applebee’s to get your discount. A different meme shows Doc McCoy from Star Trek, comforting a fallen crewmate, with the caption, “His dick fell off because you didn’t thank him for his service.”

I believe in commemorating the dead and wounded, but Veterans Day in recent years has often been used to fetishize nationalism and military force. In certain demographics, everyone wants to have been hard and merciless and sneaky and cruel. Everybody wants to have been a SEAL. (Few were.) Everyone is a Punisher. Everyone claims to be on overlook or overwatch of domestic enemies. Everyone was a door-kicker. No company puts water-purification technicians or surgical nurses on their American-branded t-shirts with flags on the sleeves; that veteran-owned coffee company is all Ranger and sniper iconography, in their marketing materials, not praise for the Stars and Stripes newspaper reporters or construction battalions put to work after natural disasters.

In fact, the “military service” that is almost exclusively praised by those in love with a certain fantasy of strength (who seem to be mostly white men, and may or may not have served in the military in any capacity) are those jobs that use loads of high technology to make them seem more godlike, with fewer consequences to the use of violence; jobs often done in the darkness, literally or figuratively. “Operators” are seen to be men of an asymmetrical frontier, lords of an apocalypse where the zombies are outgunned. Seemingly dependent only on themselves and their close-knit, small teams, they are in fact supported by massive air power, support units, logistics, and wealth. Drone operators, who have some of the same advantages, are not romanticized in the same way, because they do not have to get cold and wet to go to work, or do things that are dangerous and athletic.

All this is the mythos that has slopped into our civilian society, and it sucks. We do not need civilians in love with unstoppable, anonymous, technological violence or mystery men who arrive in the night. This is how we get militarized police forces, military forces ordered to subdue Americans demonstrating, and militias in our statehouses and sandwich shops. A friend calls it the bravado of cowardice.

On Veterans Day, honor military service, if only because it helps us keep a standing army for national defense. But on that and all the other days, let us speak of the many kinds of service–teaching, medicine, childcare, eg–that make us who we want to be when the threats are gone.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.