What We Really Owe our Veterans

The Veteran’s Day Parade in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is impressive, taking more than an hour for all the participants to pass a given point.  Bands, military vehicles, motorcycles, vintage cars, prominent local figures, and groups of veterans from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan, and all with vintage fighter planes flying overhead.  I cannot help but wonder, as  they all go by, at the incalculably huge sacrifice that so many men and women have made to keep this country together. We certainly owe them our undying gratitude for all they, and their fallen comrades in arms, and their families, have given to us as citizens of the United States.
There is something else that I wonder. Have we ever apologized to them for sending them off to war for the worst of reasons? Has anyone ever apologized to the veterans of the war in Vietnam or Iraq for putting them in harm’s way, and making them die or suffer horrendous physical and psychological damage for completely unjustifiable political, or, worse, financial reasons? Even in sending them off to the so-called “good” wars, has anyone ever apologized to them for making them do things that would scar their psyches for the rest of their lives?
He who thinks engaging in armed combat is glorious has never done it. We who have never taken a gun or a hand grenade or a cannon or a bomb and aimed it at other human beings have absolutely no clue what that does to a person. Talk to any veteran who has been ordered to do it, and you will very likely get a picture far from glory.
So I have a new reason today to celebrate these veterans that parade before me. We celebrate them, we surround them with bands and flags and planes and tribute, not because they are glorious heroes, but because we know that we have sent them off to do things that we do not want to think about, things that we likely could never do ourselves, things that no human should have to undergo. We have sent them off to take orders even when those orders violate everything they were ever taught in childhood. We have sent them off to do things and see things that will wake them in the night for the rest of their lives. And, far too often, we have sent them off to pursue wars with no purpose, or, worse, with purposes that serve, not the ideals of this country, but the selfish interests of men who, when called to serve, avoided it to serve, as the most nefairous of them once said, “other priorities.”
I think the greatest thing this country could do to honor the men and women of our armed services, past, present and future, is to swear to them that we will never again send them into harm’s way unless we have no other option and unless we are absolutely sure that the single motive in doing so is to serve the American ideal of equality and inherent and unalienable human rights. They have at least earned that.

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