If indeed we are free today because of our military might, then what shall we do with our freedom? Often on this day it seems that the only legitimate response is to celebrate that war is worth it and that those who fight are worth esteeming. I think we have to be careful though. I think this is the critical place where I bump into the apparent consensus of today’s celebration.
Will we reinforce the same patterns which perpetuate more of the same? Or will we seek new ways of being which will hasten the end of wars? We do not honor our veterans by holding the same tired mental patterns that ensure we will need to one day deploy my own sons and daughters to combat. I think the solution lies in applying the noble spirit of the warriors we esteem to the resolute creation of new ways.
Let me be crystal clear about what I honor today. I honor those who eradicated past evils. I honor the principles expressed through their valiant deeds, even if they faltered, even if their expression was imperfect or impure. These principles include courage; taking action based upon principle; doing one’s duty; selfless giving. Today is about connecting with how fortunate we are, as a people, to have an institution that is built upon these virtues, which inculcates these values into their members, into our culture. On this day, we celebrate these ideals and those who have strived to realize them in their lives. On this day, I attempt to connect with these qualities and apply them to my own life. To me, that is the highest honor I can pay to our lineage of veterans, even when my own attempts are ineffective or inelegant.
Here we gather to honor the men and women who are currently fighting and have fought for us.
Here we stand, ninety-six years after the Armistice was signed to end that war to end all wars.
Here we stand, one century after the start of the war to end all wars. In the middle of another war. Another handful of wars?
Will it ever end? Will we ever see the end of war?
Is it possible that the way we think and what we honor on Veterans Day will influence whether or not we will ever get back to the post-World War I sentiment, no more war? I think so.
So, rather than entertaining the idea that war is worth it, today I want to rewind back to 1918 to reconsider the premise we already know, deep down in our hearts. Even though recent human history is plagued by it, there is an underlying unreality about war which indicates its unsustainability. Although we have known war, we also enjoy a primal knowing that all destructive, dark entities eventually collapse. I am absolutely convinced that one day war will end, even though you and I may not see that day in our lifetimes.
War is a product of mankind. Just like every other incredible invention, war will fade away when it has no value, no purpose. We are not ready for war’s end yet. If we were, then war would not be our reality. We can still work toward its end though.
Our thoughts and intentions attract war into our lives. If an individual has attracted war into his or her life, then it has value for that person. Period.
Similarly, there are a myriad of ways that we all relate to war. Your particular relationship with war has value for you. Period.
That’s all we can know for sure.
Perhaps Veterans Day is less about expecting all Americans to celebrate this day in the same way? Perhaps Veterans Day is more a special moment, both in Europe and in the United States of America, where we collectively hold the space for each person to consider individually what war means to him or her. Veterans Day gives us an annual pause, to consider fresh relationships both with war and with peace. War is a mirror into our hearts. In this way, war is a blessing because its reflection helps us to better know ourselves.
After moments of reflection, some people will still be unsure. Some will resolve to fight the next war. Some will turn their attention to the war with their own inner demons and inner terrorists.
Different outcomes perhaps. Yet on this particular day at least, we can walk down our own unique but equivalent paths with our heads high and our hearts pounding to the beat of the same drummer, the drumbeat of fortitude, which pounds ceaselessly the message that courage indeed never quits.
For me, Veterans Day is a celebration of fortitude.
For me, I see an order in the outer world that responds to my inner world. Seeking peace through war is a realistic though imperfect venture, because acts are preceded by thoughts, and the thoughts of attack and defense linger after the acts of war cease. As long as their residue is in my heart, I know only a shallow experience of real peace.
You might think I’m crazy, and you might be right. With the awareness of the Islamic State’s brutal tactics and menacing growth, I feel insane to suggest that one day we will refuse to rely on our military to keep us safe. When I imagine the raw fear of being captured and forced to don an orange jump-suit, the louder voice inside says I am a fool. This voice of reason knocks me down again. Though I aspire to one day courageously break my sword, unlock my doors and embrace the one I saw once as an enemy, I fall wildly short of that ideal every day.
Similarly, I know that every veteran is not perfect. When we, as a nation, categorically label them all as heroes, our good intentions bump up against an inner resistance rooted in two unspoken realities. As a grateful society, without recognizing these realities, we risk demeaning the true value of every service member and veteran. First, we risk trapping our veterans in silence, because below the fanfare, I know that I did things and held attitudes which do not fit into the shape of a hero. Second, doing one’s duty without recognition is the core of the martial ethos, is the core of what we respect about heroes.
This core value is not so much about what they did or did not do. It is really not about the perfection of their acts. It is about the fact that they did those acts again and again, when the American civilians called them: it is about fortitude.
The fact is we all fall short of the ideals we set for ourselves. The question is this: what do we do after we fall? The hero gets back up.
So, in their spirit of fortitude, on this day, I will stand up, again, for what is right for me, in my heart. Even if our causes differ, I encourage and respect you for doing the same.
BarryPeterson has been involved with the Northern Nevada Veterans Writing project since its inception as writer, mentor and friend. He is a West Point alumnus and instructor who teaches courses in genocide, the Vietnam War and nonviolence at the University of Nevada, Reno. Peterson has observed life from diverse perspectives, beginning his career in the military as an infantry officer.