Each year we rightfully recognize and honor those who have served.courageously and sacrificially in the military as we are doing this Veteran’s Day weekend. And we especially honor those who have risked their lives in combat and direct combat support. Veterans have done what most believe is their patriotic duty, and we need to be grateful for their willingness to do so. In addition the military offers recruits various financial perks and training opportunities not available elsewhere, and the young men and women who serve have the further reward of being respected among their families and communities when they have served their tours of duty. All this is the more agreeable part of being a soldier.
The problem is that warfare itself is gruesome and barbaric because war, after all, is about the business of preparing for and participating in the act of killing or being killed. I wonder how many recruits actually seriously accept they are making this level of commitment or just assume warfare is a version of a video game. And regretfully soldiers who sign up with pride and promise often return with deep physical, emotional and moral wounds. Veterans who have experienced brutal combat are rarely able to talk about it personally and are deeply troubled with years of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury.
The task of the soldier is to prepare and to fight a war. I want to say clearly, however, that given the depravity of war and the grave injury to soldiers and innocents alike, the task of the rest of us is to prevent war in the first place.
War itself is essentially criminal devastation, a gross violation of basic human morality and the annihilation of human life and spirit. It is the monumental failure of government to fail to avoid war. We now read daily about two active wars killing innocent people by the thousands, carried out with the cruelty of raw vengeance. And we are deeply saddened by all we see and read. When will it ever end?
We cannot rationally or morally justify war. The historical criteria for “just war”* fail miserably against analysis. Further efforts to speak of war crimes are hollow because war itself is criminal, and in the midst of active combat who is to determine the inhumanity that could be called a "war crime" and, even if we could, who is to hold the offender accountable?
To bring us back to Veteran’s Day, one of the primary means used to justify and make the horrors of war tolerable has been to equate the honorable service of the soldier with war itself. Soldiers are good; so is war. Our Veterans Day commemorations and the pre-game rituals in sporting events, often let by a uniformed color guard, for example, are to instill in us that war is acceptable because these brave soldiers are willing to fight so honorably and patriotically for us. As a culture we leave little or no opportunity for wounded soldiers to publicly express their remorse for what they have seen and done in war. It would be unpatriotic to do so. It is so much easier to glorify their heroic acts and disregard the costs to their lives.
I am not a veteran. However, I have supported anti-war veterans groups like the Vietnam Veterans Against War (VVAW) and About Face (AF) for some time. There is no stronger voice against war than the voice of those who have intimate, personal experience with it. Please support their efforts to question and oppose war.
Yes, we need to have a military force that protects our freedoms and our lives, and we honor and appreciate all those who serve honorably for this purpose. It can always be argued that military protection will also include some risk or level of prepared engagement in warfare. But may we, with equal fervor and patriotism, financially and politically, support a growing movement and commitment to promote peaceful resolution of inevitable conflict before it becomes war. I believe this is possible. War is not inevitable. We simply need to work as vigorously as possible to identify and name the criminality war represents; may it be abolished if we are all to survive.
*The principles of a "just war" (jus ad bellum) are commonly held to be: having just cause, being a last resort, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used.