I am fortunate and deeply grateful to have the kind of friends and family who acknowledge me with kind words on Veterans Day. But something bothers me about it, too. At first I thought it was the same sense of unworthiness that kicks in on Memorial Day. That’s part of it, but that wasn’t quite right. Then I saw friends all day changing their profile pictures to something reflective of their military service, and as much as I enjoy seeing some of those pictures (especially the throwbacks!), something about that wasn’t sitting right with me either. Finally, I saw a friend’s post about Remembrance Sunday, and it helped me put my finger on it.
Remembrance Sunday has its roots very close to Veterans Day — both began as commemorations of Armistice Day, the end of World War I hostilities. In Great Britain and the UK, it is held to honor the contribution of their military and civilian servicemen and women “in the two World Wars and later conflicts.”
Jeremy and I were lucky to be in London two years ago in early November. I was curious about the sight of small poppy pins on the lapels of seemingly everyone’s winter coats, and asked what they meant. In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, people don the poppy pins, used since 1921 to honor those who have died in war. The poppy comes from a poem written by John McCrae, a poet and physician who enrolled at 41 in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to serve as a gunner and medical officer. He wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” while sitting in the back of an ambulance, the day after burying a close friend who had been killed in battle. Today, the pins are available for a donation to the British Legion, who uses the funds to support all current and former British Armed Forces members and their families.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The sight of all these poppies, particularly after reading the poem, was no longer merely charming; it was deeply moving. I purchased one in honor of our allies, and wore it for the rest of our trip. At the time, I thought simply that the visible British support for their military men and women was a lovely thing to see. Two years later, in America, I have a few more thoughts.
Veterans Day is not for veterans. As much as we appreciate the kind intentions, we don’t need to be thanked for our service by our friends and family. They know some of what military service has cost us. Some of us, it’s a few points of sanity; some of us, it’s the months away missing important events; some of us, the invisible wounds (visible and not) of loss and trauma; and some of us, it’s the ultimate sacrifice.
Veterans Day is also not merely an advertising gimmick, to be used to ingratiate your business with servicemembers. It is a nice gesture, but one that often smacks of commercialism, and that’s not what this should be about.
Veterans Day is not a day for hero worship. Not all veterans are heroes, to be sure, but all veterans are veterans, who volunteered (for whatever reason) to serve. Not all veterans are good people, either, and not all of them do good things while they’re wearing the uniform (or after they’ve taken it off). It is not so much the veterans themselves that should be honored, as their willingness to serve. We wear uniforms, in part, to depersonalize us; to make us all blend together, to be part of a team, not individuals to be glorified.
Veterans Day is also is not the right day to cry that “you’re no hero, and you’re certainly not protecting MY freedoms.” I am an enthusiastic supporter of political discourse, but there are three hundred and sixty-four other days of the year for that. The most important day of the year to make that argument, in my opinion, was last week – Election Day. If you or anyone else you know disagrees with the way that our military is administered or employed, please – for heaven’s sake – SAY SO, constructively, in a way that makes a difference. Campaign against unnecessary deployments, wasteful spending, and conflicts that you believe are morally wrong. Call upon elected officials for accountability to represent your interests. As servicemembers (especially on active duty), there is a limit to what we can say about the government while we’re in uniform; we have a vote, but it’s just one vote. But we serve a government elected at the behest of the people, so if you don’t like how the military is employed, tell them. We represent you, not them.
Veterans Day is for those who do not serve; those whom we represent, not because they are our family or friends, but simply because they stand under the same flag as we do. I worry that there are parts of America where no one remembers that. I’ve lost count of the number of times people all over the country asked “wait, we’re still in Afghanistan?” last year while Jeremy was deployed. In Sacramento – forty-five minutes’ drive from Beale Air Force Base – I was stunned by how often local strangers told me they didn’t know there was a base nearby. And perhaps I was left a little bitter, when someone said that just days after a dear friend of ours was killed in action in Afghanistan. We were still reeling from the loss, and being confronted with the fact that people weren’t even aware of his service – much less his sacrifice – was too much to bear.
Which brings me back to the poppies.
Looking back on our days in England, I’m surprised all over again by how many people donned those small red flowers. I’ve read that the poppy tradition started here, with the American Legion. I wonder today what America would look like if we still wore them. I imagine there would be heavy concentrations of red flowers around military bases, and probably in our nation’s capital. The people most eager to make donations to “support the troops,” after all, are often the friends and family of those who have served. But they already support us, and they often need support themselves.
Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but I think there are many parts of the country where we’d see very few poppies, if any at all. So much of America simply does not have any skin in the game, and our veterans have become either a prop or a political hockey puck, depending on the day.
These thoughts aren’t for my friends and family. They know what this means without me having to say it. I just wish there were a way that I could see that the rest of America did.