On Veterans Day, at my son’s request, I sat in a crowded elementary assembly as part of a Veterans Day ceremony. I listened uncomfortably to fifth and sixth graders repeat what they had been taught in their classrooms about veterans and about military service: that veterans represent the best our country has to offer, that there is no America without its veterans, and that veterans have a unique place in the country’s pantheon. I listened to their teachers and administrators say much the same. I listened as they pledged allegiance to the flag, sang the national anthem and “God Bless America.” They read sincere essays that praised veterans as “what makes America great.” By the end of the service—and that is how I felt after leaving, as if I’d been to church—I was downright queasy.
It wasn’t that the children or their teachers were insincere. It was exactly the opposite. It was the sincerity with which they embraced the conflation of military service with patriotism that shook me.
If the source of America’s “greatness” is indeed her military veterans—and thus her military—I submit that America is not “great” in the way most of us wish her to be great, nor in the way most of us think of the word. If military power is enough to make a country “great,” then there is, in fact, nothing special about America. The Soviet Red Army lost millions of members and endured the harshest conditions imaginable to defeat Nazi Germany during the Second World War. If military power and sacrifice and defeating one’s enemies are sufficient, Stalin’s USSR was certainly “great.” Genghis Khan’s riders conquered all of Asia, leaving a trail of destroyed cities and pyramids of skulls in their wake. By some metrics, the Mongols were the most successful conquerors the world has ever seen. In terms of strength and prowess, they were certainly “great.” The Roman legions expanded and enforced Rome’s rule over much of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, plundering and enslaving as they went. The Romans were “great” because of their legions. But that greatness is not the sort of greatness America aspires to. America’s greatness cannot just be a function of military strength—as a nation, we have historically struggled against fascism, not embraced it. Historically, her people have believed America must be so much more than her military and veterans.
It should be the same today.
After all, America is not just the topography between Canada and Mexico. She is an idea that lives inside the hearts of every American, native-born and not, citizen and not. The American Ideal is, at its heart, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, where the country’s founders laid out the very reason why the country called the United States should exist. They put forward the idea that “all men are created equal,” endowed with “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Such a country was not realized in their lifetime; it will not be realized in mine. Ideas that profound will always be aspirational. America, then, is a goal, a hope—a dream. She must be nurtured in the abstract, in the hearts of those who dare to dream that dream. America—the real America—has never been that “America” that lives in our hearts and minds, but true patriotism is striving towards it. Everyone who considers themselves an American has both the right to participate in the dream and the responsibility to advance it.
Fetishizing military service as the highest form of patriotism improperly elevates the role of soldiers, falsely putting them above the very society they serve to protect—a dangerous mistake, if history is any guide. Simultaneously, equating patriotism and service allows those who do not serve to avoid doing their own patriotic duties. It allows the hard work of getting America in reality closer to America in ideal to be someone else’s problem. Defining patriotism through military service is an abrogation of civilians’ rights and responsibilities. If patriotism belongs only to the soldier, the country is lost. It is everyone’s responsibility to make America a better place, to treat our fellow citizens with respect and grace, to look out for our fellow Americans, to help them in time of need, to disagree with each other in good faith, to reject foreign attempts to sow discord, and to elect leaders who are up to the task—it is everyone’s patriotic duty to take our civic duties responsibly.
History gives us plenty of examples. There have been millions of great, patriotic Americans who were not members of the military. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was no soldier. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who strived to bring to life the words Thomas Jefferson wrote, never carried a rifle in the service of his country. Jonas Salk, whose work on the polio vaccine saved millions of lives in America and around the world, never wore a uniform. Susan B. Anthony, who advanced the cause of half the country’s population, never served her country in the military. Neither did Zora Neale Hurston or William Faulkner or Langston Hughes or John Steinbeck, all Americans who contributed to our understanding of what America was, is, and could be. Their patriotism is not less because they never swore an oath, never wore a uniform, and never carried a rifle.
Neither is yours.
So how do we fix Veterans Day? How do we refocus a holiday meant to recognize the military back to the military and those who have served in it rather than turning it into a militaristic version of Independence Day—a holiday which itself has become uncomfortably militarized in recent years?
Interestingly, I think my son’s assembly offered a path towards making the holiday better. As part of the ceremony, the school chorus sang a medley of the Service songs, and as I listened to words I’d heard a thousand times before, I was struck by the disconnect between all the talk about patriotism and flag-waving in the ceremony about military service and the lack of flag-waving in the Services’ own songs. “The Army Goes Rolling Along” brags of the Army advancing in combat—it sings of being the first to fight, of building the nation’s might, fighting until the battle is won, of Patton’s tanks and Sherman’s ranks. The Navy’s “Anchors Away” doesn’t even mention the country at all, preferring to dwell on fighting at sea and drinking “to the foam.” The Coast Guard’s ‘Semper Paratus’ mentions that its ships sail under the flag, but then goes on to extol the heroism and valor of its members, singling some ships out by name. The famous “Marine Corps Anthem” sings of a “flag unfurled,” but it isn’t the Star-Spangled Banner—it is the flag of the Corps itself. Meanwhile, the “US Air Force Song,” about flying off into the “wild blue yonder,” is basically “did you know I’m a pilot?” in song form. Veterans Day would be better spent recognizing the unique character of the Services themselves, and the exploits of those who served in them.
American veterans have a great many reasons why they served, as varied as the millions of people who have worn the uniform. That’s worth remembering, that veterans are people—the exact same people as make up our wonderful, complicated country. Veterans are not super patriots, nor are they the sole guarantors of American greatness. They wore the flag on their shoulder when they served, but they stand under it when it flies, the same as every other citizen. Their patriotic duties to the America the flag represents are the same as every other Americans’; those duties did not begin when veterans put on a uniform, nor do they end when they take it off. May we all, veteran and non-veteran alike, remember that.
Especially on Veterans Day.
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About the Author: David Dixon is a combat veteran who has served in the U.S. Army in both the active and reserve components. He can be found on Twitter @DixonDaver.
About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.