A Reflection on a Legal Holiday from Many Years Ago
In my first year of seminary, at our annual off-site retreat, an event occurred, that still sticks with many of us. In many ways, it was deeply personal to me, because I had retired from a 22-year career in the Navy just a few years prior, and this day was Veteran’s Day. For me, the gesture was very powerful and meaningful; the colleague put a flower in a vase on each table at lunch, in honor of the veterans who had served the US in years past. The poppy was a symbol of honoring veterans for many years, but they were not available, so roses were used in their place.
I was deeply touched by this gesture, as I understood the historical significance of the flower, and what it represented. Most of those present did not understand or appreciate it, because it appeared to endorse the extant wars at the time, the “Global War on Terror.”
There are a number of things that those who haven’t served in the military didn’t recognize. First off, until the end of the Viet Nam era, soldiers were conscripted, they didn’t volunteer to serve. This meant that if your number was called, you went, or you had bigger troubles!
With Desert Storm, even though no US assets had been attacked there was a huge surge of patriotism stirred up, and the war was highly supported. It had broad global support as well – after all, how could we sit by and watch one country gobble up another one? Ironically, we are doing just that these days with the Russia/Ukraine war, since intervening against Russia bears risks and results beyond catastrophic.
After 9/11, of course the surge in patriotism was unbelievably high, and the numbers of people enlisting was unprecedented. Yet even so, the military still needed to call up Guard and Reserve forces like never before to have adequate numbers to staff the battle forces that were called for by President GW Bush. Were these wars necessary? That’s a topic for another discussion, though.
Since Viet Nam, however, a new phenomenon occurred in the US. Instead of blaming the President, Congress, or the National Command Authority, where blame lies for going to war, American citizens blamed, and attacked, returning soldiers. This attitude continues today. It is considered the military’s fault that we are at war, and if the military would just stop being so militaristic, well, then we could have peace, after all.
The rub is that the Constitution mandates a defense force. We must have a military. The issue is how it is used. And almost every president who has been to war himself understands the significance of that, and has been hesitant to commit to war, and has limited the military actions. On the contrary, presidents who never served in combat, including Clinton, GW Bush, Obama and Trump have kept the military engaged in the Middle East continually for over 30 years.
So, when we want to cast blame, it needs to go inside the Washington Beltway for sure, but it needs to go to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NOT to the Pentagon. The Pentagon does not make the decision to go to war, and it does not declare war on other countries. That is the President and Congress.
And the military troops and veterans at the bottom of the chain of command? They were following the LEGAL orders they swore an oath to follow. To not follow those orders carries other problems. The military does have procedures such as the conscientious objector, and I have a friend who filed for that status after returning from the Afghanistan war. So PLEASE, do not blame the military personnel and veterans – give them flowers. We really are trying to make peace in the world.
It's the politicians in the White House and Congress who try to make war. Please remember that every election year.