You may not know that Monday was Veterans Day because the Bates community did not publicly acknowledge it. As taxpayers or future taxpayers living in a global economy shaped in many ways by US military interventions, each of us has some connection to the military. All of the students at Bates have grown up in the post-9/11 era, and for most of our lives we have been at war. Many of us know people our age who have enlisted in the military for one reason or another. If members of the Bates community are interconnected by virtue of being Bobcats, then we all have connections to veterans. Bates faculty, staff, and current and former students have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Their family members have served as well. Our collective silence on Monday was therefore both peculiar and frankly embarrassing.
Perhaps our discomfort arises from the sense that celebrating veterans amounts to celebrating war. Distinguishing between those who wage wars and those who fight in them is important. Professor Joe Hall, with whom I spoke, has a cousin who fought in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Professor Hall admires and respects his cousin’s service. On the other, Professor Hall is ambivalent regarding the political decisions that sent him to Afghanistan. Wars are repulsive precisely because people die and suffer in them. Veterans Day, a national holiday, seems a good occasion to acknowledge those who have seen wars firsthand.
Before Veterans Day was Veterans Day, it was Armistice Day – a holiday that celebrated the ending of World War One. Celebrating the end of a war is much less complex than celebrating veterans because people can agree on how to celebrate peace, but not on how to celebrate those who fought in war. Professor Loring Danforth made the point that if we commemorate those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, then Iraqi and Afghani veterans should be commemorated as well. Indeed, Veterans Day compels us to grapple with the difficult questions of whom to recognize and how.
I envision a complex and perhaps contradictory holiday. We might acknowledge the inequality that compels some segments of society to volunteer for service more than others. We might celebrate our troops’ humanitarianism. For example, this past week 90 U.S. marines and sailors arrived in the Philippines, tasked with helping a humanitarian assistance survey team of around 90 U.S. soldiers already on the ground in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. We might also offer sympathy and regret for subjecting troops to sacrifices out of proportion to gains, especially in the context of conflicts like those in Iraq and Vietnam that ought not to have happened in the first place. We might solemnly remember that our government compelled young men and women to kill. It exposed veterans to grave bodily and psychological injury and death. Once home, veterans often have suffered from addiction, homelessness, post traumatic stress, and suicide. We could offer veterans at Bates and the surrounding community an opportunity to tell their stories of glory and heartbreak and to share their diverse, complex perspectives.
War is an unfortunate component of all of our lives. Veterans Day should be an opportunity for serious discussion rather than just a normal Bates Monday or a day that celebrates veterans in typical militaristic fashion. Bates should be sophisticated enough to honor those who fight for our country while critically analyzing their experiences.
Part of the reason we are able to study and teach comfortably and in the safety of our classrooms is because of our veterans. Acknowledging our veterans in intellectual and thoughtful ways would make for a more intellectual and thoughtful college.