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The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Armistice. Marked as the official end of World War I. The origin of Veterans Day in the USA. And I’m a week late for the tributes.

I am often envious, maybe almost jealous, of veterans. I wish being a Christian was more like being a vet—that it was foremost in our identities, that we were honored to be a part, that we had an innate bond with others who share this commitment, even if we had never met them.

Nonetheless, Veterans Day always makes me uneasy. I’ve come to see that my disquiet is far less with the veterans and much more with the way we mark the day. We’re used to hearing “Keep Christmas with you all through the year” and “Every day is Mothers’ Day.” More and more, it feels like every day is Veterans Day. What’s wrong with that, you may be asking. Finally, these men and women are getting the recognition they deserve. The stories of Vietnam vets coming home—shunned, reviled, called “baby-killers”—have sunk deep into our national psyche. Truly, a tragic blaming-the-victim if ever there was. But we’re way beyond overcompensating by now.

  • Athletic teams wearing camouflage uniforms, or bedecked in stars and stripes. Honoring veterans or more merchandise for the souvenir stands?
  • The endless stream of videos of returning soldiers surprising loved ones. Touching, cute, wonderful. Probably the first couple hundred brought me to tears, but after a while, even a sentimental sap like me starts to wonder, “Really? More?”
  • A year or so ago, I had a funeral for a Korean War vet. Somehow a group of motorcyclists heard about it and wanted to participate. They were the most insensitive, pushy, and garish group. Claiming they were there to serve and honor, they really wanted the spotlight for themselves. But you can’t say that because they had wrapped themselves in the flag—literally. Please bring back the old men from the VFW Hall, whose polyester blazers no longer fit and who play a cheesy recorded version of Taps. It feels way better.
  • Then there are the countless commercials, the celebrity tweets and posts, and the media moralizing about “Thanks to our Veterans.” Veterans may well be worthy of gratitude, but at some point they’ve become shills inadvertently pimping products, every huckster trying to horn in on their glory. It is troubling, dare I say dishonoring, when advertisers use feel-good stories of veterans not simply to sell, but really trying to hallow their products.

Here are some thoughts, each fraught with the risk of sounding hurtful or seeming disrespectful.

I believe that our repetitive overplaying of vets tells us way more about ourselves than of our respect for veterans. Moreover, our current fascination with honoring and thanking our veterans is a tell-tale symptom,  maybe even a cornerstone, of our nation’s war-without-end.

This country is so conflicted and cynical that we are in desperate need of heroes, desperate to admire and honor someone, desperate to find something we agree on, desperate for something that still feels noble. We’ve landed on veterans. Saying we’re honoring them, we’re actually using them to feel good, using them to polish our own images. The word “hero” is heard so much it feels droopy and done. All the while, we know that our military is disproportionately from the lower end of the economic ladder. We want the goose bumps and grandeur of a disabled vet throwing out the first pitch while the outfield is covered by a half-acre flag. But our energy fades when it comes to facing the epidemics of unemployment, homelessness, and suicide among vets.

We haven’t really had a “good war” since World War II. But perhaps if our veterans are good, then so are our wars. Iraq and Afghanistan, for what? Pay homage to the warriors and we don’t really need to face that the wars were fiascos. When honorable and anguished people are used to prevent an honest assessment of our nation’s foreign policy, something has gone terribly wrong.

For decades to come, hundreds of thousands will struggle with all sorts of trauma and life-altering injuries. The ripples of that pain will flow through spouses, care-givers, children, and grandchildren. The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Underneath the constant barrage of “Thank you to our vets!” I think what our hearts really want to say is “We are so sorry.”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

One Comment

  • Henry Ottens says:

    I appreciate your bold analysis.

    Brings to mind a comment by Jean Bethke Elshtain: "Pity is about how deeply I can feel… And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs."

    Lest we overreact to the hoopla, I recommend checking out and supporting the Wounded Warrior Project.

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