|"Honor to the Brave": detail from French World War I bookmark|
We seem to have undergone a series of pendulum swings in our attitudes toward veterans just in my lifetime. When I was very young, veterans were adulated until, all of a sudden, Vietnam vets were denounced as babykillers. A little over a decade ago, with the looming disappearance of World War II vets and the appearance of Tom Brokaw's book on The Greatest Generation, we began to take a new look at other veterans, as well. To be sure, the trend began earlier.
Even the anti-war movement has gotten on board, though it was a shaky ride at first. Back at the time of Operations Defensive Shield and Desert Storm two decades ago, the protesters, realizing that the "babykiller" theme didn't play too well (even as they were denouncing both sanctions and military action for, well, killing Iraqi children), adopted the new slogan, "Support Our Troops—Bring Them Home." It was of course farcical and disingenuous, and no one bought it. The troops didn't want to be brought home, and the protesters didn't really give a shit about the troops (after all, it wasn't as if they actually knew anyone in the military). Still, somehow, a change began to take place. The protesters revived the slogan at the time of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in the present decade, and although it still rang hollow, something qualitatively different eventually emerged (there's a great research topic in here somewhere): perhaps because these wars were long and had been bungled, perhaps because greater numbers of troops were therefore involved, perhaps because the length of the engagement and irrationality of many policies allowed the troops to raise questions, perhaps because the protesters had actually learned something. In any case, we have thankfully arrived at the point at which genuine concern for soldiers and veterans is widespread and is beginning to transcend political differences.
What we all agree on is that wars are nasty: veterans paid the price and have important stories to tell. My colleague Bob Meagher here at Hampshire College has long been an activist on behalf of veterans' issues. He's also a distinguished classicist, so he takes the long view. Although he would probably have little in common politically with the classicist and political commentator Victor Davis Hanson, both men have an understanding of the deep-rooted place of war in human society and the rawness of the combat experience, physical and psychic. Hanson is the author of, among other works, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War and The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. Bob has written mainly about culture, from Classical Greek literature to Saint Augustine, but several years ago, when the Iraq War was still raging, he created a provocative series of events, combining the intellectual and the activist, built around the theme of the return from war, from the Odyssey to the present. He is the author, most recently, of Herakles Gone Mad: Rethinking Heroism in an Age of Endless War. You can read Bob's description of the work of the National Truth Commission on Conscience in War on the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities' Public Humanist (where I also blog).
The renewed desire to hear and preserve the stories of veterans is arguably the twin product of the passing or aging of the older generations and the rise of a massive new cohort, the first since the Vietnam War (because the US conflicts of the last quarter of the twentieth century were so limited in scope). The Library of Congress has been pursuing an ambitious and admirable series of initiatives to record the experiences of the troops in the form of the Veterans History Project (VHP):
The latest installment of the Veterans History Project's (VHP) Experiencing War website feature, titled "VHP: The First Ten Years," has launched in time for nationwide Veterans Day observances. The website feature, one of 32 created thus far, highlights the wartime stories of 20 veterans who represent a cross-section of the more than 70,000 collections donated to the project during its first decade of existence.Watch the videos here.
“War experience just hypnotizes young men.” So said Victor Lundy, a World War II veteran who recorded many of his war memories through his sketchbooks, now donated to the Library of Congress.
LC volunteer Sarah Rouse describes her interview with Lundy here. In "World War II 'Scientific Manpower,'" the LC offers further insights into the technology and experience of modern total war.
Although I was privileged to take part, as a representative of the Town of Amherst, in the Memorial Day ceremonies this spring, my work schedule unfortunately prevented me from participating in the flag-raising and other commemorations this Veteran's Day. Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, who was present, reported that it was a very moving ceremony.
The annual ceremonies in the US passed without major incident, but those in the UK were marred by scattered radical Muslim demonstrations. Islamists burned a symbolic poppy (for those too young to know or without benefit of a modern history class: the original twentieth-century Allied veterans' symbol, dating back to the famous World War I poem), and otherwise sought to disturb the ceremonies. Notably, they disrupted the traditional two-minute moment of silence, chanting such slogans as "British soldiers burn in hell," "Islam will dominate," and "Our dead are in paradise, your dead are in hell." (1, 2, 3). Private reports that I have seen relate similar acts of disrespect in British schools.
Dare one still hope for the original vision? A photo posted by the Library of Congress concretizes those now seemingly naïve desires after the "war to end all wars":