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The Trouble With Veterans Day

| November 11, 2013

A memorial to futility. (© FlaglerLive)

A memorial to futility. (© FlaglerLive)

By Arnold Oliver

More then a few veterans, myself included, are troubled by the way Americans observe Veterans Day. Originally called Armistice Day, and intended by Congress in 1926 to “perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations,” the holiday has devolved into a hyper-nationalistic worship service of militarism.

We’re directed to believe that the day’s purpose is to honor the heroes who have sacrificed to defend our peace and freedom. Criticism, or even discussion, of the merits of the embedded assumption of veteran heroism is dismissed as being beyond the pale.

Well, I have to tell you that when I was in Vietnam, I was no hero and I didn’t witness any heroism during the year I spent there, first as a U.S. Army private and then as a sergeant.

Yes, there was heroism in the Vietnam War. On both sides of the conflict there were notable acts of self-sacrifice and bravery. Troops in my unit wondered how the North Vietnamese troops could persevere for years in the face of daunting U.S. firepower. U.S. medical corpsmen performed incredible acts of valor rescuing the wounded under fire.

But I also witnessed a considerable amount of bad behavior, some of it my own. There were widespread incidents of disrespect and abuse of Vietnamese civilians including more than a few war crimes. Further, all units had, and still have, their share of criminals, sexual predators and thugs. Most unheroic of all were the U.S. military and civilian leaders who planned and orchestrated this avoidable war.

The cold truth is that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam had next to nothing to do with our own peace and freedom. On the contrary, the Vietnam War bitterly divided the United States. We fought it to forestall Vietnamese independence, not defend it.

Unfortunately, Vietnam wasn’t an isolated example. Many American wars — including the 1846 Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the Iraq War (this list is by no means exhaustive) — were waged under false pretexts against countries that didn’t threaten the United States. It’s hard to see how, if a war is unjust, it can be heroic to wage it. So it’s flat-out preposterous to claim that everyone who has ever been in the U.S. military is a hero.

But if the vast majority were anything but heroic, have there been any actual heroes out there defending peace and freedom? And if so, who are they?

Well, there are many, from Jesus down to the present. I’d put Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the list along with many Quakers and Mennonites. And don’t forget General Smedley Butler, and even Robert McNamara who came around in the end.


In Vietnam, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson stopped the My Lai massacre from being even worse. The real heroes are those who resist war and militarism, often at great personal cost.

Another candidate is former U.S. Army specialist Josh Stieber who sent this message for the people of Iraq: “Our heavy hearts still hold hope that we can restore inside our country the acknowledgment of your humanity, that we were taught to deny.” Ponder a million Iraqi deaths.

Because militarism has been around for such a long time, at least since Gilgamesh came up with his protection racket in Sumeria going on 5,000 years ago, people argue that it will always be with us.

But many also thought that slavery and the subjugation of women would last forever, and they’re being proven wrong. We understand that while militarism will not disappear overnight, disappear it must if we are to avoid economic as well as moral bankruptcy.

As Civil War General W.T. Sherman said at West Point, “I confess without shame that I am tired and sick of war.” I’m with you, bro.

Arnold “Skip” Oliver is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. A Vietnam veteran, he belongs to Veterans For Peace, and can be reached by email here. Distributed by OtherWords.

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27 Responses for “The Trouble With Veterans Day”

  1. fruitcake says:

    So…whats your point?

    • NortonSmitty says:

      If that’s your question, read it again, it has a very good point. Or don’t. I hear Real Housewives of Miami is on.

  2. Preston Zepp says:

    Here is the part you left out. The good soldier. The one who does his job. The one who gets a leg blown off and still defends his buddies. The one who works on a severely woundedsoldier OR civilian for hours knowing there is no hope,but praying and working anyways. The ones who leave their families to answer their countries call. Tell a child that their parent isn’t a hero. I applaud you service during Vietnam. I honestly do. And since you were there, you know as well as I do that there comes a breaking point in a person that gets met. It is human weakness. I’m younger than you, but during my two conflicts, I saw many acts of courage in the face of the firefight. And I have seen them in peace time. But you only seem to want to push a agenda of peace,flowers and happiness. War sucks. There is no two ways about it. But remember, that the true warrior prepares for war,but prays for peace. Because it is the warriors that pay the price for you. As a veteran yourself, you should be ashamed of yourself for trying to take the honor of what these brave and fine young HEROES are doing.

    • NortonSmitty says:

      The true soldier/patriot has the courage to justify his mission and orders against the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Constitution he swore to defend. Every one of them. At the time they are given not when he is an old soldier looking back at his mistakes
      And yea, if you have and ounce of intellegence and humanity you will eventually.

    • John F Passero says:

      I don’t think the writer was disrespectful or trying to take honor from anyone. Our troops are our kids, brothers, fathers (as well as sisters, daughters and mothers. They deserve much respect and accolades for what they do. But also I must admit that I’ve had the thoughts that this article shares. I only wish that our soldiers were used honestly and much less frequently. We haven’t been fighting for our freedom for a very long time. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq could ever challenge American freedom. Not in a million years.

  3. Steve Wolfe says:

    I don’t worship war. I hope we never have another one. I am saddened that so many have occurred and that the costs have been so terribly high. I do honor the sacrifice of our beloved military men and women. I feel blessed that so many patriots have risen to take up arms and stand between me and my enemies, without even knowing me. Even those who never saw combat still had to train with lethal equipment under lethal conditions. I don’t take even jumping out of an airplane lightly. Many knees have been ruined in training jumps that were meant to prepare fighting troops. There are so many kinds of injuries from combat. Deployments mean extended separation from loved ones. Careers are put on hold or even lost. Income doesn’t compare, in most cases, to civilian employment. I could never ask anyone to do these things for me. Yet they do, voluntarily, willing to respond to orders from their CIC and put their lives on the line so I may live my life as I please. I hope that I live my life in a manner that honors the sacrifice of our troops, not only on Veterans Day, but every day. God bless you, Mr. Oliver, and all our troops.

  4. Charles Ericksen Jr says:

    Apparently Mr. Oliver has missed the “recent” history of 9-11…

    But then again, my experience is that if the real world is tough, you go to work at a University and spew your opinion out to youth, that has very little history as it really occurred.

  5. ohmy says:

    No,
    The Holiday has not devolved into a “worship service of militarism”.

    1% protect the other 99% and we thank them!
    They don’t start wars, politicians do! They only do what they are told is best.

    I’m glad this guy is a ” Professor Emeritus”– folks teaching this ” world Utopianism ” aren’t too realistic.

  6. Bunnell Resident says:

    If the professor (writer) is a real hero he can confes the war crimes he claims he committed and subject himself to possible prosecution if they are still prosecutable. The overwhelming number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in today’s military are honorable men and women who do not go around committing war crimes. Through my multiple deployments since 2001 I have never witnessed a fellow soldier commiting a war crime, do drugs, etc. Whether a war is just is for history to decide andnthat decision rested with our national leadership, not the rank and file members of the military. This article is offensive in so many ways. I would rank nearly everyone I served with a hero. On the other hand, the author praises Martin Luther King as a hero, lnowing full well that along with all the good he did he also was a drug user, womanizer, and plaigerist. The professor chooses to overlook Dr. king’s obvious shortcomings while implying that a large majority of our military is amoral and complicit in fighting amoral wars. The trouble with Veteran’s day is that most American’s just consider it a chance forma long weekend without really considering the sacrifices our veterans have truly made. He also references past wars for which no one could possibly be alive. Those individuals are remembered on memorial day. Veteran’s day recognizes the living. Perhaps the trouble with this professor is he knows so much that isn’t true.

  7. Samuel Adams says:

    The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on Earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature for his rule.

    -= The Rights of the Colonists, November 20, 1772 =-

  8. Tom says:

    I think you miss the point of Veterans Day. It is a day to remember those who sacrificed on OUR BEHALF. It is not a day to remember why politicians start or don’t start wars. No war is good and I believe 99.999% of all veterans would agree. They protect us and the rights we have. it is because of them that you could even state your opinion in this article. Why is it that even the most simple acts of patriotism like thanking our veterans must be politicized by big mouth extremists. No matter what side of politics you are on these men and women put their life on the line to protect our freedom. They do it willingly because they believe it is the right thing to do. It certainly is not for the money. can’t you just give politics and idealism a break for one day when it comes to these unbelievable Americans?

  9. Genie says:

    More Bullshit. You do an unbelievable disservice to those veterans who put their lives on the line everyday. To blame these soldiers for war is also Bullshit.

    Politicians send soldiers to war. Barack Obama has promised to end conflicts and instead has intervened in more conflicts than Bush, supplying weapons and risking US credibility. And now he is killing with drones.

    Talk to your precious President.

  10. JIM.R says:

    In mythical America all our wars are fought with good intentions.
    In reality they are fought to take other countries resources, especially oil
    In mythical America the young that fight our wars are hero’s.
    In reaality they are pawns that fight so the few can profit.

    As James Mcmurtry put it about the rich and war
    “their shit don’t stink and their kids don’t bleed”

    • mw says:

      Al Gore,John Kerry,John Kennedy,Joe Kennedy Jr.,George Bush(41),George Washington,Teddy Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton,Robert Gould Shaw,George Patton,all had wealthy parents and went to war. If you look at unit rosters from the Civil War the majority of regt.officers on both sides came from the leading families of their areas. Most of the troops in Viet Nam were volunteers not draftees. It may be that old rich man poor man phrase may not hold much water.

    • John F Passero says:

      Blunt, but true!

  11. Skeptic says:

    Professor Oliver should get his facts straight. First off, Veterans Day is an official National holiday that honors people who have served in the armed services, also known as Veterans. It is observed on November 11 and coincides with other holidays like Armistice Day and Remembrance day. (Wikipedia).
    Armistice day has not “devolved” into anything. He has cherry picked his citations and dates to support his peacenik thesis.
    The original Armistice Day proclamation was in 1919 (not 1926) and said “the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory”.

    This guy is a master at creating his own phony argument “strawmen” and then pushing his own agenda to argue against them. And why does he hysterically say that “it’s preposterous to claim that everyone who has ever been in the U.S. military is a hero” ? Where the hell did he get that ?
    I’m sure he was not a hero and I’m guessing that he was drafted into the Army and in todays world wouldn’t think of volunteering to serve our country. It really scary that this guy is a Professor teaching in a college.

    • Jeremy says:

      How many of today’s heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan ended up there because they found a good employment opportunity?

      Just wondering.

    • JIM.R says:

      Skeptic —That’s a strange choice for a screen name from someone who still thinks people who participate in our invasions of sovereign countries, our criminal aggression against the people of Iraq and drone attacks on numerous countries in the middle east and Africa are serving our country.
      If you don’t see the hypocrisy when Hilary Clinton, Kerry and Obama give speeches claiming American exeptionalism and being a force for good, your name should be Believer not Skeptic. The rest of the world takes exception to our claim of exceptionalism, and laughs at our hypocrisy.

  12. Jack Howell says:

    I am not a hero just an average American. I am from Middle Class stock who was raised with the right values of God and Country. I am a former Marine who went to Vietnam to serve my country. I was a product of the “Cold War” and the never ending fear that the Soviet Union was our arch enemy that had the capability of launching nuclear war. Yes, I was well aware of Robert McNamara’s Domino theory which held that countries would fall under the spread of Communism throughout Southeast Asia if we did not stop it in Vietnam. Once in country, I saw that President Johnson and his Administration did not have a clue. They were spewing nothing but BS! It was at this point my purpose was to fight for my fellow Marines as they would for me! I was in Vietnam during the “Tet Offensive” of 1968. I was physically on the DMZ as well as in Khe Shahn where the North Vietnamese thought they held the upper hand and would kill us all. This is where I was wounded….but I’m no hero, I don’t need to be thanked for my service. I stepped up and needed to do what I considered my duty to my country.
    I believe in the history and traditions of Veterans Day so Dr. Oliver keep your opinions to yourself. I don’t believe for one moment that Veterans Day celebrates the glories of battle. The real hero’s are those that gave all for their fellow warrior. But, I’m no hero.

    Colonel Jack D. Howell USMC (Ret) PhD

    • JIM.R says:

      Colonel
      Did you not fight for Dr. Oliver’s right to express his opinions?
      Have you looked into the evidence that the cold war, Vietnam, and every war since have been unnecessary, hindsight doesn’t help the millions dead from our military adventures, we need the big shot Generals to start refusing illegal orders, instead of looking at wars as career advancement opportunities.

  13. Rocky Mac says:

    a point well taken was the disrespect and abuse of Vietnamese civilians. And one wonders why our VA mental health clinics are filled with veterans in the 60-70 year old age group.

  14. karma says:

    Thank You for your service Colonel Howell.

  15. Geezer says:

    I admire the men and women past and present who serve in our military.
    Our government doesn’t go far enough to care for these individuals when
    they return home with PTSD, lost limbs, lost hearing, etc.
    Do you think they love war too?

    They deserve their Veteran’s day.
    It’s the damned minimum we can do to honor them.
    ONE DAY THAT WE HONOR THEM IN THE YEAR.
    We should honor them every day!

    I have two words for our veterans: THANK YOU

    Arnold Oliver has a right to his opinion, wrong and myopic as it may be. BUT…

    Mr. Oliver, take a stand against the people who are sinking our country.
    How about an article bashing Wall Street and the scumbag banksters – those same
    pieces of filth that have created a demand for our young people to be put in harm’s way
    in the first place? Heck since you’re in the mood to bash…

  16. Denali94 says:

    While I will agree that much of the conflict we have seen in our lifetime was wrong, that statement is made with full benefit of hindsight. In the post WWII world of Stalin threatening the free world, Korea looked bad. I doubt JFK went into Viet Nam on a whim. The domino theory of Chicom dominance of SE Asia was real. Again, in the cold light of history, those actions might seem to be poor choices, but were they really; or did they stop the incursions and dominance as intended? We will never know.

    Iraq, Afganistan and the other recent messes? We have talked these to death.

    I grew up the son of a 60’s Cold Warrior who flew the BUFF with a couple of nucs in the back seat. The last thing he wanted was war, but if the orders came through, he and his kind would have made that one-way trip into the Soviet Union. In my life I have had the pleasure of knowing hundreds of military folks, none were hero’s and all would decline the honor. But, when they were sent to war by people who had nothing on the line but an election, each and every one of them put on their uniform and went off to face an enemy who wanted them dead. For that they were paid next to nothing and many suffered terrible personal losses upon returning home, if they came home.

    Wars of aggression are wrong. But those that stand on the wall and keep the bad guys from our shores need to be respected and honored. Unfortunately the line between aggression and defense is often blurred. Regardless, the young men and women who have taken an oath to protect us while we sleep, do not make the rules or pick the battles. To end the needless wars or whatever they should be called, get rid of the politicians and radicals on both sides. The problem today and for thousands of years, is that one faction covets what the other has or does not agree with the others beliefs.

    How long would this country last if we adopted the philosophy, “we have an ocean to our east and west, the Canadians are our friends and the Mexicans will not attack militarily so we can throw away all our guns and disband the military.” Fire the border guards, disband the TSA and get rid of the customs force. I give it five years, if that.

    You, me, everyone we know and the author of this article can thank the veterans who kept Hitler and the Japanese from their mission of world dominance. I thank them every day for giving me the chance to be born in a country where I had the freedom to never know tyranny.

    I have never known a soldier who wanted war; they are but the tool of the politicians. Let’s not lump them into the same pot. To do so cheapens the soldier.

    As for Veteran’s Day, it is a time to thank those who serve the country and protect our freedoms. Just their presence helps keep us safe. To paraphrase the motto of SAC, ‘Peace is their profession’. I am sickened by the politicians who hijack the day to spew their war mongering venom, and they all do it.

    And that is my $0.02 worth.

  17. JIM.R says:

    Denali94
    Did we stop Chicom incursions and dominance as intended? Go to your local Walmart , the answer is there.
    Stalin was hardly in a position to threaten anyone considering the USSR lost about 30 million people in WW2. The cold war was to keep the MIC functioning and to continue the $ flowing to those that profit from a state of war.
    We don’t have to throw away our guns and disband the military, but cutting our military in half would be reasonable and we would still have the largest military in the world.
    As far as your statement about living in a country never knowing tyranny, I guess you haven’t noticed the surveillance by the NSA and the growing authoritarian police state we live in.

  18. I/M/O says:

    Mr. Oliver… General William Tecumseh Sherman the “Father of Modern Warfare” made many statements about war. Here are a few.

    “War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.”

    “Courage – a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger, and a mental willingness to endure it.”

    “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

    “In our Country… one class of men makes war and leaves another to fight it out.”

    “If forced to choose between the penitentiary and the White House for four years, I would say the penitentiary, thank you.”

    “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.”

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