Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thoughts on Veterans' Day

Here in the town that I live in, the banks and city government are closed today as are (I assume) most of the businesses down on Main Street, but somehow the schools were opened.  I was initially a little irritated when I learned that the local school system did not give the students the day off for Veterans' Day because I do think that is a civic holiday worthy of commemoration and reflection.

However, after a discussion I had with my Youth Mentoring pupil last night, I have changed my thinking about that. He apparently got quite a bit out of the Veterans' Day program his school did last year. They apparently had some Veteran come last year and tell stories. He still remembered it and was looking forward to this years program. I was somewhat surprised by this because when I was a school age kid, I always hated special school programs like that because I thought they were hokey or a complete waste of time when the alternative might have been getting the day off from school.

He was asking me some rather poignant questions about war in general and the history of this country. I was more than happy to have this discussion being a military history major back in the day. One of my particular fields of study in that field is actually World War I, from which modern Veterans' Day descends because the day was originally Armistice Day which ended the first World War. World War I is largely a forgotten war in America.

People who know anything about American military history tend to focus on either World War II or the Civil War. I believe that is largely because the point of those military conflicts are understandable and can be seen as even heroic is some sense. The Civil War, depending on what side you are inclined to sympathize with, was either the War to end Slavery (although that was an indirect cause) or a romantic "Lost Cause" if you are of Southern background. And of course World War II can be seen in retrospect as opposing the evils of Nazism and ending the Holocaust and all that. Although, again, that is somewhat a case of hindsight being 20/20 because most Americans did not know or ignored reports about the concentration camps until Allied personnel liberated them. Some people to this day still deny the whole affair.

The First World War, or the War to End All Wars as it was called at the time, was of a completely different nature. World War I was just horrific for the sake of being horrific. There was no glorious or more noble cause for that war. Millions of people got killed. The whole Victorian ideal of social progress largely died in the mist of the mustard gas killing fields because World War I was largely fought for no particularly moral purpose. It all started because of various political reasons and secret treaties. Both sides thought they could so scientifically predict what the other side would do so that quick pre-emptive strikes would end the war before it began, and everyone would be home by Christmas. The problem was that all the theories and doctrines were based on the technology of 50 years before, times and methods of war had drastically changed, and the orders went out and could not be rescinded. And Europe, and then the whole world, was dragged into this international geopolitical conflict for no real purpose for 9/10th's of the actual players.

The real tragedy of that conflict was that if you took some one off the line at random at basically any point in the war, they probably could not have told you what the war are really about other than mouthing either nationalistic platitudes or because so many men had died that they had to continue fighting to make their deaths have some meaning. But at the end of the day, most of those men could not have given you a satisfactory answer to why their lives were being completely destroyed. That was the real tragedy of World War I: it was war that in the end had been fought over basically nothing of consequence. The borders of the nations involved were basically the same at the end as at the beginning.

Thus, it was no wonder that Armistice Day was proclaimed as a holiday to commemorate the end of such a dreadful series of events. Sometimes I wonder if the shift to calling it Veterans' Day actually overly commemorates military service and undercuts the need to nationally remember the horrors of war itself. I think that is a discussion that needs to be continually had, particularly in a country that no longer has a draft so that wars in theory affect everyone, not just families of those who serve. For I believe if we fail to remember both the Wars and the Veterans, and focus only on remembering the Veterans, we ensure that there will be all too many veterans in future generations because we failed to learn the lessons of what produced our current Veterans in the first place.

Now, let me be clear here. I am the first to thank veterans. I'm as patriotic as the next guy; I even have an American flag hanging in my office not a foot from me as I type this. I depart in my thinking here from my more pacifist brothers and sisters because we do live in a fallen world that can create great evils like war. Sometimes I believe the use of force is justified to protect the innocent and "for the punishment of wickedness and vice, and the maintenance of thy true religion" as it says in the 1928 Prayerbook. Force and violence I believe are different in terms of moral theology and justification. Pacifists equate the two. We live in a imperfect world (made imperfect by our own actions), and sometimes we have to use imperfected means to prevent greater evil because we are left with no other choice.

To that end, I believe God does have to call some people to a vocation of military and police service. (I include police in my thinking here because, though not technically military, they are in armed service to protect and defend the country, and often are in other types of war such as gang and drug wars.) I do believe God weeps at having to do that, just as he weeped at having to continually send prophets to remind his people to return. If we are truly Christ's body in the world, however, sometimes we have to use other parts other than our heart and our head. Sometimes, we have to use our hands not just to feed others but to take bread from the hands of the powerful and give it to those they have oppressed and taken the bread from in order to keep the fallen world from falling even farther.

Ethical dilemmas are precisely ethical and not moral in nature because we are trying to find a clear path in a murky area that is neither light nor dark. This is why I believe military service is a vocation because military personnel are called to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience when they are on active duty. They often fall short of these, but, like monks ad all vocations, must seek God continually through prayer and guidance.

As such, for this Veterans' Day, I offer a different kind of prayer to Veterans both past, present, and future. It is not a prayer necessarily of thanksgiving, though that would be warranted. Instead, it is the prayer for Monastic Orders and Vocations (1979 BCP, pg. 819) because Veterans are called to vocation of sacrifice, a sacrifice that points us all to the Greatest Sacrifice of the Cross on which Jesus died so that in the ages of ages when God brings all things back unto himself, there will no longer be a need for Veterans for God "will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."

Let us pray:
O Lord Jesus Christ, you became poor for our sake, that we
might be made rich through your poverty: Guide and sanctify,
we pray, those whom you call to follow you under the vows
of poverty, chastity, and obedience, that by their prayer and
service they may enrich your Church, and by their life and
worship may glorify your Name; for you reign with the Father
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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