It’s Veterans Day.
This afternoon I had conversations with veterans from three generations of war. A World War II veteran talked with me about the pain so many veterans experienced after Vietnam, when they came home to be treated like criminals – as if the soldiers who fought the war were the ones who caused it. “I notice that there’s been a change since Vietnam,” he said. “People seem to treat veterans better today.” I said I hoped that pacifists like myself had learned to honor the soldiers, even as we worked against the war. As another veteran put it to me today, it is important “to honor the difference between the war and the warrior.” Most soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen pray for nothing more than peace.
Still, too often in the United States we still fail our veterans – not out of cruelty, but out of neglect. We ignore the real health problems that are the aftereffects of war. We fail to provide adequate mental health care, and employment support. We ignore their families too often. Somehow we can’t seem to bring ourselves to sacrifice for the people who have sacrificed for us.
I don’t think it’s that people don’t care – but somehow we have been sold on the idea that wars are things that take place in distant lands, conducted by remote control. We tend to forget they are fought by people who must suffer the effects of what they have seen and been asked to do.
Peter LaFarge wrote “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” about a World War II hero, a native American who died drunk and all but forgotten, during the Vietnam era – and nobody performed it better than Townes Van Zandt.
During the 1980s, I got to see Arlo Guthrie perform this song, not long after it had been written. I think it’s time to bring it back.