Veteran's Day is a very difficult day for me. It's a day of paradoxes and strained conscience. As a citizen of this great nation I want to celebrate the heroes who secure my existence and my way of life. As a human being I mourn all who have ever died on either side of any war and I hurt with the families who can never forgive their enemy. I am confused by the fact that any anti-military sentiment that might pop up into my mind is only possible because of all the people who fight and die to preserve that freedom of conscience for me.
My immediate thought this Veteran's Day was that we need to raise up those soldiers of character and moral compass, that we need to share the stories of their exemplary lives, and that these stories will serve to criticize those soldiers that we read about every so often who act against the preservation of human rights and dignity. Abu Ghraib returns to me again and again, haunting me, standing as a banner that unites all crimes against humanity, as an exemplar of what we can never do again. Against these horrors I place those individuals I admire, the Joe DeBoers and Chris and Cody Pearsons of our military. My belief was that America's armed forces, were they comprised only of people like those I have listed, good soldiers with proven moral fiber, would serve this country without the blemish of another Abu Ghraib.
While I have neither the desire nor the ability to simply forget or explain away the variety of crimes that I am referring to under the name of Abu Ghraib, I don't believe that we can divide the military into the good guys and the bad guys. Even those individuals who went against the laws of war (quite a paradoxical concept in itself), to paraphrase a common Facebook status, wrote a blank check to this country payable for up to and including their lives. On a day like today, on Veteran's Day, we need to recognize this sacrifice also. We must never reduce the entire life of a soldier to one crime. Otherwise we forget that these people faced an everyday reality more horrifying than anything most of us have ever faced, and that they did it for our sake.
The longer I talk about the military, the more I feel unqualified to talk about the military. In the end, everything I know on the topic is something I've heard from someone else. While writing this piece I kept feeling like I should tear it up and throw it away. (I prepare most of my essay blog posts in a notebook before I type them out.) What right do I have to say anything at all on Veteran's Day? Two things come to my mind: 1. that the people we celebrate today live and die to give me the chance to have a freely formed opinion on war, the armed forces, and soldiers, and 2. that the story of my grandfather Paul Slater and his military service during World War II requires that I continue to add my voice to the discussion of these hard issues.
Having landed at Cherburg shortly after D-Day, my grandfather had already proved himself in combat with the 44th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army by the time that America began contemplating the nuclear option as a means of ending World War II. There was another option on the table, however: the American forces could engage in a multi-wave invasion of Tokyo. Under this scenario my grandfather would have fought and likely died during the second wave of the invasion. The expected percentage of casualties, as I've been told, was well over half, after all. If Paul Slater died in 1945 or 1946 then none of his children would have ever been born, which means my mother's birth in 1947 would have been erased and as a result I would not exist. I am literally "the runaway son of the nuclear A bomb," to borrow from the song "Search and Destroy" by Iggy Pop and the Stooges. The condition for my existence is every death that resulted from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As a child of the mushroom cloud, I recognize that my most valued possession, my life, is only possible as a result of the sacrifice of others. Like my grandfather, I am a survivor, and as such, I face the survivor's dilemma. I wish to live - I always wish to live - but why should I live and not the innocents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? This is the unanswerable question that plagues my existence, the unanswerable question that gives me a voice in this discussion.
There is no easy word to be said on Veteran's Day. There is no Facebook application or widget that can speak to the gravity of today. My conscience still hurts when I hear of our soldiers dehumanizing our nation's enemies. But it also hurts when we do not honor the people who protect our families so we don't have to, when we dehumanize soldiers by protesting their funerals or calling them "baby killers," reducing them to less than human, to one action. Every word I've said today has been wrangled from a very difficult inner struggle, from a battle that I've never been able to pull out of. In this way I am a soldier of a very different kind, but I certainly don't deserve the same kind of credit.
I support our troops by exercising my freedom. I value them by speaking with the voice they have given me.