Today’s date used to mark the celebration of the end of World War I, or “The Great War,” or “The War to End All Wars.”

But we were wrong. So, the fact that the day’s been repurposed, I think, is a sad testament to the failure of naïveté. This was the generation that gave us the Kellogg-Briand Pact.  They could actually think that the horrors they’d survived were terrible enough to force everyone to avoid war forever.

There are always new horrors, and there are always people low enough to visit them on those they cannot either persuade or neutralize by more productive means.

I spent much of my childhood around veterans and, with the exception of my grandfather, they didn’t spend a lot of time telling war stories. There isn’t a lot of strutting or bragging. If anything, they’re the most sanguine people I’ve ever met. Veterans have the best-developed gallows humor of any species of man.  They are also incredibly skeptical about politics.  The rear-echelon types are generally more jocular than the actual combat veterans, but anyone who drew combat pay has seen, heard, smelled, felt, and endured things I never will.

One of the horrors of war is the mockery that military technology makes of human beauty.  As a child, I found a picture of the severed head of a Japanese soldier.  The expression, cured into the leather of his face, suggested he had died in extreme agony.  It appeared that his eyes had melted into a kind of foam that dried on his cheeks.  He was looking up.

That head was the hood ornament on an American tank in the Pacific theater of WWII.

My cousin and I would dare each other to open that book and look at that picture.  And then we would lie awake for fear of seeing it in our dreams.

It doesn’t matter if the mess was a good friend or a hated enemy.  That could have been you.  And even someone stamping boxes on a tiny airstrip in the Pacific is likely to have that thing that he wishes he could unsee.  Day after fucking day.  Not a black-and-white picture in a Time Life Book.  The real thing.  The smell.  All of us are reminded of our mortality from time to time.  But all veterans, from the black humor of basic training to the stories you hear from the veterans around you to the friends you’ve lost to the things you did — THAT is the prospect of pure dumb luck turning you into a sick joke, blasted out of rotting meat.

World War I brought that shock to Europe.  The very technology they’d been deploying in their colonies and in riot control for decades was now turned on nice college boys, and that made it a problem.  The idea that war was too terrible to repeat was polite society’s reaction to seeing its own means turned on itself.  Nice college boys visited the stockyards of civilization, and some of them came back in tins.

But, in the US, that was all far away.  Between the Civil War and September 11th, there had been no mass casualties from an assault.  No wonder our country is a child when it comes to war.  No wonder we fail to understand, or value, our veterans.

The serving military is overwhelmingly young.  Veterans are overwhelmingly working-class.  Serving doesn’t seem to have much to do with ideology.  Far from the compulsory RAH RAH of American politics, what you get out of combat veterans when you can get them to talk about their experiences usually involves some combination of the following:

  1. They are not heroes.  The heroes are the ones who never came home.
  2. They fight for each other.  Everything else is secondary, at best.

The condition of VA hospitals, etc., in this country is a fucking disgrace.  Speeches, ribbon magnets, and Pentagon pork can’t make up the difference.  Someone put their own meat on the line, and they might just have lost some of it along the way.  And now they’re yours to comfort and assist until the day they die.

Pay the fucking bill.

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