Citizen And Veteran Ex-Navy
This evening I had the rewarding experience of attending a Veterans’ Day program put on by the Middle School my younger son attends. The 8th Grade band, in which my son plays the trombone, and the Girls’ Choir performed patriotic tunes, the school principal presented a check to Honor Flights, a retired Marine Colonel gave a speech and a Boy Scout Troop processed and recessed the flags. It’s nice to be appreciated.
As I sat in the cafeteria during the after reception I began to think about why exactly we, as a country, make such an effort to honor those who have served in the Armed Forces. Besides this one day in November, we also have Memorial Day in May. There are statues and monuments all over the country honoring those who have served, especially those who lost their lives while performing their duties. We even have a whole department of the Federal Government devoted to Veterans’ Affairs, including a dedicated network of medical facilities. What is it that drives us to make these gestures of appreciation?
One answer we often hear is that without our veterans our country would not enjoy the liberties and freedoms we do. At the event this evening I saw a placard that read, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a Veteran.” The spectre of foreign invasion and the fact that we have not been overrun by some malevolent, presumably oppressive, regime is given as evidence of the debt we owe our nation’s Veterans. They have protected our way of life, after all.
One often hears the members of the military referred to as “Our brave men and women of the armed services.” We are told that they fight for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, and that they defend those freedoms with their very lives. That may indeed be true. As a justification for why we should honor our veterans it serves rather well. However, I think there is something deeper at work which compels us to do so.
Throughout the history of civilization warriors have been lauded as heroes, even if the state they defended might be considered evil or oppressive. This is a generalization, of course, not everyone views the role of the soldier as honorable or even desirable. For those so minded the soldier is nothing more than an unwitting pawn of the vast machinery of stateist, imperialist oppression, a tool of destruction and murder more to be pitied than praised. I dare say such views may be in the minority. Most citizens view the armed forces as necessary to our survival as a nation. Here again, we have an excellent argument for why we should hold those who serve in high regard, but not an adequate answer for why we need to.
Here is my theory. Despite our best efforts, or most sincere desires, we still live in a world dominated by the use of force. Humanity has yet to socially evolve beyond the point where the threat or application of deadly force, either on the singular or on the general level, directs the currents of power. Therefore, a standing army is necessary to the preservation of the state. However, humanity has morally evolved to the point that life is, or should be, regarded as a precious thing. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things. We train our soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors to do this. We break down their natural aversion to causing harm to their fellow human beings. They volunteer to serve and we institutionally shred their souls so that we may enjoy lives of relative comfort and a clear conscience. I think that collectively our consciences are not as clear as we pretend. I believe that deep down we feel guilty for forcing these young men and women to endure the conditioning necessary to turn otherwise reasonable, moral people into agents of death and destruction. I believe that this collective guilt compels us to shower our men and women in uniform with praise and gestures of respect and gratitude. In so doing we hope to suffuse them with enough positive psycho-spiritual energy to make up for the dark negativity we have perforce caused them to absorb on our behalf.
I am not saying this is a bad thing, or even a undesirable one. As a Veteran myself I admit to being grateful, and a little humbled, whenever someone says, “Thank you for your service.” Any influx of positive energy is a good thing. I am merely making an observation on what I see as the underlying meta-physical mechanism at play. I was fortunate in that my service consisted mainly of standing watch in the engine room, or sitting in a classroom. I do not envy those ground troops who face death, or the possibility of death on a daily basis. They are heroes in my eyes, because they voluntarily take on the burden of our collective security by sacrificing their individual serenity. We ask them to do horrendous, inhumane things on our behalf. The least we can do is offer them a portion of our peace in return.