Considering the essence of Memorial Day
The scandal regarding the Veterans Administration continues to escalate rapidly, providing a major ethical as well as political challenge to the Obama administration. Allegations of willful neglect and falsification of records are indeed shocking. Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran Mike Jeffords of Janesville was featured May 22 on CBS News, describing his own and other veterans’ long-term frustration with the VA.
One factor complicating current treatment of veterans is growing segregation of our armed forces from the wider society after the military draft was abolished. Consequently, Memorial Day is even more important for us all.
Since ancient times, honoring warriors has been central to the solace of families and also the sanity of survivors of battle. Even the unusual man who finds combat rewarding is in severe need of a civilizing welcome after the killing ends.
Homer, chronicler of the Trojan War, was extremely sensitive to this. The great classic is presented in two parts. “The Iliad” focuses on the fighting and related interplay involving Greeks and Trojans; “The Odyssey” describes the very long voyage home of Greek leader Ulysses and his men as they traverse allegorical geography. Warriors still alive remain bound to dead comrades, and separated from the rest of society.
World War II combat leader Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was extremely mindful of this dimension. In 1945, he and Gen. James Doolittle, who led the first air raid on Tokyo, were featured in a special ceremony in the Los Angeles Coliseum after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Patton celebrated the accomplishments of the U.S. Third Army in the victorious drive across Europe. In honoring these troops, he stressed in particular the 40,000 who lost their lives in that final year of the war.
Our major wars have usually involved such ceremonies of honor, but not always. The Vietnam War was different. Military personnel were actively discouraged from public discussion of the subject. Public opposition to the war became hostility to our military. Veterans of that war continue to experience uncertain aloneness without a Ulysses, emotionally uneasy, troubled—and sometimes troublesome.
One indirect benefit of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is younger veterans who run for public office. We won the Cold War in part because members of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” who served in the military also served in government. Every U.S. president from Harry Truman through George H.W. Bush was a veteran.
What Washington needs above all is the sort of sensible realism such men and women can bring to policy. Honor vets whenever you can. Don’t stop with the pro forma “thank you for your service.”
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.