Ky. Voices: Honoring vets goes beyond pomp and salutes

November 12, 2013 

With full military honors, we buried Dad at Arlington National Cemetery in September. From private to colonel, his 35-year career — distinguished in combat in WWII, Korea and Vietnam — culminated fittingly in those hallowed grounds. This highest military tradition left me thinking of Veterans Day and the meaning and practice of honoring.

Veterans Day 2013 brought more expressions of respect and social rituals to honor active military and veterans. Such beautiful tokens are genuinely appreciated and appropriate. However, if they substitute for addressing past, present and future veterans' real problems, they remain hollow words and empty gestures.

Each year, honoring is more commercial (branding corporate images as patriotic, caring and supportive) and more ideological (manipulating emotions for political purposes). All are dishonorable — using veterans for commercial or political advantage and distracting us from truths about war and from addressing our real responsibilities to veterans.

Veterans Day begs this question: are there more meaningful ways to honor veterans by making sincere sentiments more proactive and supportive — addressing tragic problems of suicide, mental/emotional health, post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions, damaged families and relationships — to better prepare and support soldiers for war and post-war adjustments?

We begin by reclaiming our democratic role in foreign policy. Our founding fathers prudently established checks and balances by dividing war-related responsibility between government branches and by assigning civilian control over the military. Both principles rested on one presumption: an informed and active "we the people."

Perils of unchecked military decision-making are rooted in economic interests to build and use weapons, in personal and professional ego, and in career incentives-medals, promotions, status, assignments tied to war experience.

Moreover, in a political system in which representatives are embedded in those interests (via lobbying, contributions, revolving-door careers), decisions about war must reside with those who truly pay the economic and human price — and that's us: you, me, we, the people.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, echoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning of the military-industrial complex, connected it to political culture creating a "pattern of misguided policy ... geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear."

MacArthur's critique is probably fair of any war but is ever more poignant with obscenely increasing profitability, along with images of contrived homecomings absent body bags or mutilated civilians to inculcate fear and mislead.

By necessity, the final check and ultimate balance resides with mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, families, communities that serve or offer loved ones into service, and then live with resulting physical damage, shattered psyches and distorted souls. This requires an attentive and active public and the will to move beyond the mythology that war is always inevitable, effective and noble.

We must begin raising children with truthful knowledge of war, fortifying them with ethical judgments for a "just war," and the courage to resist conflict which is illegal, immoral, inhumane or counterproductive.

We must ensure that they are prepared to enter and exit war with integrity, character, empathy — with honor.

Veterans "must be honest and open about both sides of war," writes Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes. "The more aware we are of war's costs, not just in death and dollars, but also in shattered minds, souls, and families, the less likely we will be to waste our most precious asset and our best weapon: our young."

Veterans have the right and responsibility to combine personal experience and historical truth to educate others to prevent future conflicts and to secure post-war support.

Since Vietnam, it's tragically apparent that war is an ineffective way to achieve goals, valid or contrived, or to resolve complicated situations — all the while taking a monstrous toll on veterans, their families and civilians.

Our primary commitment should not be to simply honor veterans, but to protect and ensure their honor by going to war only for just cause and engaging only in ethical practices.

And then, we must provide spiritual, psychological and physical preparation and an efficient and comprehensive system to care for wounds, physical and invisible.

Addressing West Point cadets, MacArthur said, "The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."

Soldiers know praying is critical ("no foxhole atheists") but insufficient. Civilians and veterans must work for peace — that is the ultimate way to honor veterans.

Peter Berres of Lexington is an Army brat, Vietnam veteran, University of Kentucky retiree and itinerant educator.

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