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The Significance of Veterans Day

12:00 AM, Nov 11, 2011 • By LEON R. KASS
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This year, President Obama’s proclamation struck an altogether different note, beginning with a call to honor our veterans and to commemorate the legacy they have upheld of “profound service and sacrifice in pursuit of a more perfect Union” (italics mine)—not usually thought to be the goal of the armed forces, whose efforts are directed against real foreign dangers, not putative domestic shortcomings. He praised them as exemplifying the fundamental American trait of doing our utmost “to make a difference in the lives of others”—a banality that does not begin to describe the heroic and extraordinary character of their service and its nation-preserving goals. He then spent much time praising their efforts—after their military service—to “safeguard the prosperity of our Nation in our neighborhoods, our businesses, and our homes. As teachers and engineers, doctors and parents, these patriots have made contributions to civilian life that serve as a testament to their dedication to the welfare of our country.” And although speaking of a debt of honor for their service, he defined that honor as “working tirelessly to give them the care, the benefits, and the opportunities they have earned”—implying that honor for heroic patriotic service means nothing if it cannot be cashed in for (admittedly fitting) tangible social benefits. Rather than dedicating ourselves to the cause for which many of them gave their last full measure of devotion, the president spoke of “rededicating ourselves to serving them as well as they have served the United States of America.” One wonders what Woodrow Wilson—or a soldier coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan—would make of President Obama’s call to “enlist our veterans in the greatest challenge we now face as a nation—creating opportunity and jobs in this country. . . .

The nation we need to build—and the nation that we will build—is our own.”

The president’s views and emphases, it is true, reflect the opinions of many of our fellow citizens, who are only too glad to be rid of a war that they either did not support in the first place or decided long ago was not worth the cost. About this, reasonable people may differ. But much more worrisome than the division about the current wars—and much more damaging to the proper celebration of this or any future Veterans Day—is the demographic and socio-cultural division between the less than 1 percent that does the fighting and the 99 percent that enjoy the benefits of peace and prosperity safeguarded by those who protect and serve. Not only do the 99 percent not serve; many among them, particularly among the privileged elite, do not personally know anyone who does. (The absence of ROTC on many elite college campuses contributes much to this divide.) And while veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan receive more respect and consideration from post-9/11 America than did veterans who returned from Vietnam to an ungrateful country, it remains to be seen whether we can properly honor their service.

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