I'm really struggling with this. It happens every year.
It's not that I don't think Veterans should be honored. I do. Abundantly. The actions of men and women in military service who have seen and participated in war - willingly or unwillingly and for whatever reason - is often nothing less than sacrificial and, in many cases, noble.
Some have signed up for service with a spirit of altruism known particularly among the young. Others have signed up willingly with, perhaps, a spirit that is less than noble - the irresistible call of adventure and travel, or the reckless abandon that is seen as no less risky than bungee-jumping, driving a car at high speeds, or living in inner city neighborhoods - with the added benefits of acquiring a job skill that will translate into a job in the "real world", or the promise of paid college tuition after a tour of service.
For some, it is freedom from an oppressive or violent home environment, a way out of grinding poverty, an alternative to serving time in jail, or the hopeless "what the hell" attitude of those whose lives seem to be going nowhere else fast.
For still others, it is an opportunity to put into action all the carefully taught machismo of their youth, or the justification of the prejudice they have been so carefully taught.
It's not the veterans I have a problem with. It's the war.
As a child and young adult, I used to carefully watch the faces of the veterans who stuffed themselves into their now ill-fitting uniforms or put on their best suits, festooned with medals of distinction, plop their DAV caps on their heads and march in Veteran's Day parades that seemed to have been more popular and better attended in my youth.
Some held their heads high, their shoulders back, their faces beaming with pride. Too many others seemed merely old and sad and tired, their faces deeply etched with memories too hideous to find their way into words, except 'round the bar at the AmVets Club or the VFW Hall, after a more than a few beers and shots. Or, to relive in the middle of a dark night in terrifying nightmares that seem all too real.
My father was one of those men, although he never marched in the Veteran's Day Parade. He was too busy working overtime and double overtime, just to live The American Dream he fought so hard to preserve and win for himself and his family. He drank too much and smoked two packages of Lucky Strike a day.
He sometimes got what he called "a bout of Malaria" which he had picked up in the Philippines. He would sweat so profusely and shake so violently it frightened us as children and our mother would shoo us away to our rooms or outdoors to play.
Sometimes he would awaken suddenly, in the middle of the night, with shouts and screams so loud and terrifying as to wake up the entire house.
"Daddy's having a war dream," my mother would say. "It's okay. Shhhh. Shhhh. Go back to sleep." A war dream? I would think, "More like a war nightmare," as I lay awake trying to imagine the horrors my father had experienced.
He received the Purple Heart and with it, the benefit of only having to pay the first $200 of his property taxes - a substantial savings in Massachusetts. He felt proud of that status, telling us kids about it often. I always felt as if he was justifying his malaria and nightmares, as well as what I now know was the suffering caused by undiagnosed and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
I remember, as a kid, listening to the story of the torture of Jesus on the Cross every Good Friday and suspecting that there was a link, somewhere in there, to the justification of the evils of war.
"Jesus died on the cross for you" was not far from "Your uncle died in Korea so America could be free." Which was not too far from "Your father suffered in the war so we could have a good life."
I think I was nine or ten when I began to connect the violence my father often exhibited at home with the violence I experienced in the Story of the Atonement.
"He suffered and died for our sins" was not too far from "I'm doing this for your own good." Which was not too far from "Of course your father is harder on you. You're the oldest. You set the example for the younger ones. If they see you punished, they'll learn."
Those who serve in social service agencies that deal with domestic violence or with abused children can provide lots of anecdotal evidence to support the connection between the violence of the cross and the abuse they see in the women and young children who seek shelter in or relief and legal intervention from their agencies.
Religion Dispatches recently ran an essay by Sarah Sentilles "Waterboarding in the Living Room," that offers a glimpse into a US torture culture that relies on salvific violence, misogyny, and legal hypocrisy. She writes:
22-year-old Trevor Case has been sitting in a Nebraska jail since late last month for allegedly waterboarding his girlfriend. After accusing Danielle Stallworth of cheating on him, according to police reports, Case tied Stallworth to the couch, stuffed socks into her mouth, bound her wrists with belts and hair ties, placed a shirt over her face, and poured a pitcher of water over her head so she would believe she was drowning."History", Sentilles writes, "suggests that drowning women for real or perceived transgressions is not unusual at all."
Citing work done by William Schweiker, she writes that
"The notion of violence as vehicle for salvation depends on the logic of certain versions of atonement theology in which Jesus’ violent death on the cross is understood as salvific. The idea that waterboarding might deliver the victim from his or her sins also echoes the discourse used to justify contemporary practices of torture and the prevalent understanding of the so-called war on terror—on both sides—as a cosmic battle between Christianity and Islam."She ends her essay with these words:
Case has been charged with domestic assault, false imprisonment, and making terroristic threats. Meanwhile, the architects of the Torture Memos and proponents of waterboarding remain free—giving talks at universities, speaking on television shows, receiving medals of commendation, or sitting behind home plate next to Nolan Ryan cheering for the Rangers during the World Series.So, having my connection between the Atonement and the obscene violence of war and the equally obscene violence against women and children affirmed by far more learned people than I, you'll perhaps better understand my disquiet and discomfort with Veteran's Day.
Case is in jail for allegedly using the same technique employed by the US military, the CIA, private contractors, and US allies. In a country in which Karl Rove can say that he is “proud” of using waterboarding against suspected terrorists without facing punishment of any kind, why wouldn’t Case feel proud, too?
I desperately want to honor my father and all the men and women who are veterans of war. I do not want to do that with flowery, poetic, sweet and foamy patriotic language that dulls our mind and covers our eyes to our own complicity in war, honors the Evil of war and supports the politicians who willingly sacrifice the loves of young men and women for impulses than could never be confused with nobility or altruism.
Still, I believe it is very important to honor those who have experienced war - especially those who have done so while keeping their lives secret under the salvific violence of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as a means of keeping "order" and "discipline" of military life - which is nothing more than machismo draped in the patriotism of the flag and hidden under the mantle of "duty" and "honor".
If nothing else, honoring our veterans is an important reminder of the ravages of war and the insanity of military life, even as it lifts the spirits of those whose souls have been crushed by 'salvific violence' in all its various forms.
I have been impressed with the people of the First Nation - the so-called Native Americans or Indians - have dealt with their veterans.
John Brown, Jr., one of the Navajo Code Talkers from WWII, offers some wisdom:
"I had nightmares thinking about the blood. The Japanese and the smell of the dead. Rotting Japanese and they probably got into my mind. And they had a Squaw Dance for me in Crystal. And I imagine they killed that evil spirit that was in my mind. That’s what it’s about. There’s a lot of stories there. It takes a long time to talk about it. It usually takes a medicine man to explain everything properly. But it works."
The Navajo people have different kinds of ceremonies for returning soldiers. When a soldier returns from war, his family can decide to sponsor a ceremony for him. They contact a spiritual leader, sometimes called a medicine man, who talks to the soldier about what he has experienced and decides which ceremony will be best for him. The Enemy Way ceremony (sometimes called the Squaw Dance) is one Navajo ceremony used for soldiers who were in combat, captured, or wounded.
Intense preparations are made and, at the appropriate time, the ceremony is conducted. Often it includes family members and others who participate in the prayers, songs, and other parts of the ceremony. These ceremonies help the Navajo war veterans return to a state of balance, or beauty, within the universe. This state of balance is called “Hozho” in the Navajo language.
Happily may their roads back home be on the trail of pollen.I imagine this prayer can only be said with any integrity or efficacy after 'intense preparation' with a Spiritual Leader as a way to begin to restore balance and peace and, as John Brown says, "kill the evil spirit" that takes up residence in the human mind after an experience of war.
Happily may they all get back.
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty.
'Sa'ah naaghéi, Bik'eh hózhó
—from a Navajo Ceremony (Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature, ed. by John Bierhorst, 1974)
The Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies in The Episcopal Church has a website which offers lots of liturgical resources for Veteran's Day.
I still have a great deal of trouble with a lot of the language and imagery, but I did find this prayer - this litany - from the Iona Community which I offer to you as you prepare your own observance of Veteran's Day:
In the midst of hunger and war,And, this, my own prayer:
we celebrate the promise of plenty and peace.
In the midst of oppression and tyranny,
we celebrate the promise of service and freedom.
In the midst of doubt and despair,
we celebrate the promise of faith and hope.
In the midst of fear and betrayal,
we celebrate the promise of joy and loyalty.
In the midst of hatred and death,
we celebrate the promise of love and life.
In the midst of sin and decay,
we celebrate the promise of salvation and renewal.
In the midst of death on every side,
we celebrate the promise of the Living Christ.
Holy, loving and most gracious God, You who have wondrously created and yet even more wondrously restored us to fullness and holiness of life by the gift of your Grace: Help us find within us the divine spark that called us into being and send your Holy Spirit to fan its flames with the passion of your Divine Love and Justice. As we honor those who have fought throughout the ages in many wars and those who are still in the midst of war, help us find in our souls the mercy of God; in our hearts the compassion of God; in our minds the wisdom of God. Be especially present to those whose hearts are burdened, those whose conscience is heavy ladened, those whose minds are a battleground of conflict, and all those who live in secret fear of discovery. May all our lives - the lives of friends and foe, of every person of every nation, race and tongue - be filled with the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, that we may study war no more. We make our petitions to you and to Jesus, whose sacred heart is wounded by our brokenness, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us into all Truth and belief and understanding, that we might find healing and hope and peace. Amen.