This is Veterans Day.
Ninety-six years ago today, World War I ended, so this day has been variously marked as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, especially among the Allies who won that war. As that conflict receded from our collective memory, the day came to be the day on which we honor all of those who served in the American military, in wartime or not.
This is a day that makes me angry.
It's not that I have a problem with honoring veterans. Much to the contrary, in fact. Regardless of the circumstances, the veterans we honor today pledged themselves to a purpose greater than themselves, to the defense of this nation. There aren't enough words in the English language to describe the meaning of such a selfless act.
But there are several aspects of the behavior of Americans on this day, and on all the other days, that anger me, or at least disappoint me.
It is a small thing to say thank you to veterans on this day. In fact, it's such a small thing that it might literally be the least we could do. That doesn't mean it's not important--it is.
When our country goes to war, a debt of honor accumulates. It's absolutely true that "freedom isn't free," as the sign in front of Sam's Club this morning read. These men and women have agreed to pay that cost for us as a whole. But in the great ledger of life, that creates a credit balance. To the ones who return from war, we owe special consideration in education and job training and jobs and housing and health care. We owe it to the ones who return from war with physical and psychological injuries to restore them to health as best we can, and if we can't, then we are obligated to give them the care we can give them. And to the ones who don't return, well, we owe them our respect, and we owe their families the support that has been taken from them.
But we owe an even greater debt still. We owe it to our veterans to create as few of them as are necessary to the survival of the Republic. For most of my adult life the cost has been too great. The leaders who decide to go to war have been altogether too cavalier about that cost, and they have been cruelly reluctant to pay for the consequences of those decisions. It is as though they have some mental block about what it means to lose 4,425 American servicemembers and to expose 32,223 more to the wounds of war, all in a war of choice in Iraq.
It is no criticism, no diminishment, no derogation of their service to say that the casualties these Americans experienced in our name were founded on a lie.
More than ten years on, it still angers me that no one who lied to advance us into war with Iraq has been called to account for it.
George W. Bush happily paints pictures fraught with subconscious symbolism and hawks his revisionist-history books.
Dick Cheney remains a sought-after political commentator.
Condoleezza Rice gets to help pick the football playoffs and golf at Augusta National, and is mentioned on the short list for when Roger Goodell either retires or is fired as NFL commissioner.
In a just world these people, and others, would be in jail, doing a small part to pay the debt they incurred without reason.
They won't be called to account, because no one is brave enough to do so, no matter how much the wound on our American soul gapes and bleeds.
Most Americans have heard the saying, "My country, right or wrong." We are conditioned almost from birth to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world. In some respects that's true, but not always. I would not trade my American citizenship for any other, but it does us no good to believe that we are great when we are not great, that we can do no wrong when we so obviously do wrong every day.
We are not the greatest nation on earth.
But we can be.
When in the early days of the Republic Stephen Decatur, one of those days' great and daring naval heroes, raised his glass to toast America, this is what he said:
Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.We cannot help but be Americans.
But is it too much to ask that we do what we can to recognize where we fall short and to put it right?
Can't we insist that together we bring more light than heat to the world?
In my mind, that starts with making this holiday mean something real. Enough with the platitudes and poppy-wearing. Let's set about the work of making this country something worth fighting for. That's how we repay that debt.