Some are inclined to recognize that Trumpies are dwelling in an alternative universe in which neither climate collapse nor nuclear apocalypse is a concern but terrifying wild hoards of Muslim Hondurans are skipping and dancing into the Fatherland armed with gang symbols, deadly rocks, and socialistic tendencies.
Others are alert to the fact that the so-called “mainstream” — the viewpoint of pro-status-quo, anti-improvement institutions — is also fabricated in a wishful dream factory. As exhibit one, I offer: Veterans Day.
A National Museum claiming to tell veterans’ stories and longing to become “the clearinghouse of veteran voices” where “producers or authors or podcasters in the future” come “for authentic from-the-veteran voices,” has just opened in Columbus, Ohio. The $82 million recruitment ad benefits from government funding and raises donations with this language: “Your tax-deductible gift helps to honor, connect, inspire, and educate all on the story of those who bravely served our country.” Not one word about accuracy, thoroughness, diversity of viewpoint, or independence of thought.
“What you are going to see and here[sic] are the stories – Why did someone decide to serve? What was it like to take the oath, serve in combat? What was it like to come home?” reports one newspaper. For example? Well: “For example, there’s Deborah Sampson, a Massachusetts woman who disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the Revolutionary War (even pulling musket balls from her own thighs to avoid having to see a doctor, who might discover her true sex). Or Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez, who received the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of at least eight men during the Vietnam War in a six-hour battle, in which he sustained seven gunshot wounds and shrapnel throughout his body.”
Do visitors obtain information, education, challenged assumptions? Maybe, but what one can read about this museum says that one will be “inspired,” like this guy: “For my own part, I find inspiration and opportunities for reflection in the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ exhibit honoring the fallen; in the sound of ‘Taps’ playing on the second floor; in the meal kits and other everyday objects carried during service and the letters sent home; in the windows striped with colors of military service ribbons through history; in the stories of transition to civilian life; in the leafy Memorial Grove outside.”
Arguably honoring is not the same thing as studying. Without question, much participation in the military has involved bravery and much has involved cowardice. A very strong case can be made that militarism has not been a “service” in the sense of serving any useful purpose or benefiting people rather than endangering, killing, traumatizing, and impoverishing them. Indisputably, millions have not “decided” to “serve” at all but have been compelled to participate, and millions more have “chosen” to sign up principally for lack of any better source of income. Of all the veterans I’ve spoken with, those pro- and anti-war, not a one that I recall has ever mentioned the taking of an oath as a major part of the experience of war. The heartwarming stories of a woman sneaking into the military and a soldier saving lives in Vietnam can’t erase the larger story of soldiers having killed millions of people in Vietnam and tens of millions more all over the globe. Do people really “fall” in a “sacrifice,” or are they slaughtered in a stupid heartless machine? Do they “transition” to civilian life, or do they crash into an agonizing obstacle course of injury, guilt, PTSD, and culture shock? Are veterans more often disturbed by apocryphal tales of being spat on, or by naive gratitude for having committed moral atrocities?
A war museum that is also openly a war memorial constructed by a war-making society that has normalized permawar is not going to answer those questions. But they’ve long since been answered by poor people’s museums, also known as books, and there’s a new one of those just out that I’d put up against the toxic offerings of this new museum. The book is Guys Like Me by Michael A. Messner.
This book tells the stories of five veterans of five U.S. wars: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq Parts I and II. We learn their stories from long before they entered the military through long after they left it. The stories are well-told, with subtlety and complexity, not museum-like propaganda. Patterns become evident without the book becoming repetitious. Each person is unique, but each confronts the same monster.
Recent veterans’ stories alone would not have sufficed in creating this book. The stories of past wars long-since enveloped in mythology are needed if the reader is to begin questioning war itself. Such stories are also more useful as typical stories of the wars they were part of. In more recent wars, the stories of U.S. veterans amount to a tiny percentage of the stories of those impacted by the wars. But older stories alone would not have sufficed either. Recognizing the eternal horror of war in its current guises completes the powerful case presented here. This is a book to give to young people.
The book’s first story is called “There Is No ‘Good War’” and tells the story of World War II veteran Ernie “Indio” Sanchez. Don’t take my assertion above that war involves cowardice as well as bravery from me. Read Sanchez’ story and take it from him. But cowardice was not the horror that lurked in Sanchez’ brain for decades while he kept busy and avoided it until he could avoid it no more. Here’s an excerpt:
“All of this—the bone-chilling fear, the guilt, the moral shame—hid out in Ernie Sanchez’s body for the remaining seven decades of his life, ambushing him when he least expected it, jabbing him like that piece of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He could never make it go away, not entirely. Eventually he learned that talking about it—testifying to anyone who would listen to his stories of the stupidity of war, the burdens of having fought and killed, and the hope of peace—was the best salve for his wounds.”
This book is not only a model of telling the sorts of stories unwelcome in museums and NPR documentaries and Veterans Day parades, but also a model of writing about the perspective of an organization. Messner found his subjects through Veterans For Peace, on whose advisory board I serve, and accurately captures the wealth of moral and personal motivations behind the work of these veterans to rid the world of the means of creating yet more veterans.
Sanchez’s story begins with a tough, rough, gang and prison life. But that life contains nothing like the horror of war. He recalls:
“In two-and-a-half weeks, they had to pull out the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions, because they were decimated. In two-and-a-half weeks, that Division lost 9,500 men, either killed or wounded. Two-and-a-half weeks I’m talking about. In this war we’re having [now] in Iraq, we haven’t killed 6,000 people yet. How many years we’ve been over there?”
The author does not step into the story to correct the idea that over a million dead people in Iraq aren’t actually “people,” but it is a way of thinking that many participants in war work to become aware of and overcome. Sanchez, in fact, spent many years telling himself that at least he had not personally killed people because he had shot at the front of trenches so that the “enemies” wouldn’t stick their heads and guns above them. When his life became less busy, he began to think about what he had actually done decades before:
“When I didn’t have all these other things I had to think about, they came back to me and then I found out. God, the psychiatrist told me that I killed between fifty and 100 Germans. But I didn’t shoot to kill. I shoot to keep the guys down from shooting back. My job was to shoot right in front of the trench so dust and rocks and everything was right over-head so the Germans [are] not gonna stick out their heads to shoot back. That was my job, to keep them down, and keep ’em from fighting back. That was my mentality. I wasn’t killing anybody. And that’s what I was saying all these years. But the goddamn Iraq War reminded me what a dirty SOB I was.”
The stories get harder, not easier, from there. The story of the war on Korea includes a U.S. veteran apologizing in-person to a woman who was the only survivor in her village of a massacre.
Don’t blame the veterans, we’re often told. But this is a cartoonish morality in which blaming someone bars you from also blaming someone else (such as top government and military officials and weapons makers). The fact is that many veterans blame themselves and would no matter what the rest of us did; and many move toward recovery by facing their guilt and working to balance it with work for peace and justice.
Messner explains his perspective with an account of a conversation with his grandfather, a World War I veteran:
“On the morning of Veterans Day in 1980, Gramps sat with his breakfast—a cup of watery coffee, a piece of burnt toast slathered with marmalade, and a single slice of cool liverwurst. A twenty-eight-year-old graduate student, I’d recently moved in with my grandparents in their Oakland, California, home. I tried to cut through Gramps’s cranky mood by wishing him a happy Veterans Day. Huge Mistake. ‘Veterans Day!’ he barked at me with the gravelly voice of a lifelong smoker. ‘It’s not Veterans Day! It’s Armistice Day. Those gawd . . . damned . . . politicians . . . changed it to Veterans Day. And they keep getting us into more wars.’ My grandfather was hyperventilating now, his liverwurst forgotten. ‘Buncha crooks! They don’t fight the wars, ya know. Guys like me fight the wars. We called it the “War to End All Wars,” and we believed it.’ He closed the conversation with a harrumph: ‘Veterans Day!’
“Armistice Day symbolized to Gramps not just the end of his war, but the end of all war, the dawning of a lasting peace. This was not an idle dream. In fact, a mass movement for peace had pressed the U.S. government, in 1928, to sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an international ‘Treaty for the Renunciation of War,’ sponsored by the United States and France and subsequently signed by most nations of the world. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the law changing the name of the holiday to Veterans Day, to include veterans of World War II, it was a slap in the face for my grandfather. Hope evaporated, replaced with the ugly reality that politicians would continue to find reasons to send American boys— ‘guys like me’—to fight and die in wars.”
So they will until we stop them. Guys Like Me is a great tool for that cause — and for the restoration of Armistice Day. One error I hope will be corrected is this statement: “Obama slowed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” President Obama in reality tripled the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and made it by every measure (death, destruction, troop count, dollars) his war more than a war of Bush or Trump or the two of them combined.
Veteran Gregory Ross read one of his poems at the 2016 Veterans For Peace Convention. It is quoted in Guys Like Me:
[“A Moment of Silence in a Forest of White Crosses”]
do not require our silence to be honored
do not require our silence to be remembered.
do not accept our silence as remembrance, as honor.
do not expect our silence to end
the carnage of war
the child starved
the woman raped
the virulence of intolerance
the Earth desecrated
It is the living who require our silence
in a lifetime of fear and complicity
do require our courage to defy the powerful and the greedy.
do require our lives to be loud, compassionate, courageous.
do require our anger at the continuance of war in their name.
do require our shock at the maiming of the Earth in their name.
do require our outrage to be honored, to be remembered.
have no use for our silence”
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include Leaving World War II Behind (2020), Curing Exceptionalism: What’s wrong with how we think about the United States? What can we do about it? (2018) and War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Support David’s work.
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