So who pays any attention to Veteran’s Day anymore? A hell of a lot of people, I’m guessing, in certain places in the country. But in Manhattan the other day, there weren?t many.
As in all things involving this giant beehive, “not many” is a relative term. The newspaper estimated that there were about 20,000 people at the parade, but didn’t specify if that was the crowd, the marchers or both together.
In any case, I was on the East Side, hurrying as fast as my aged body would carry me, to the West side, to do a fill-in show for Lynn Samuels at Sirius? And I was worried that I’d be held up by the parade.
No worry. It was a sparse, not too lively crowd that lined Fifth Avenue?at least in the Forties where I was crossing. And the actual parade was thin, ragged and pathetic-looking.
To be fair, the largest and most enthusiastic crowds are usually higher up on Fifth Avenue where people come into the city specifically to see the parades… The area where I was is more filled with people on their way to appointments, or hurrying to or from lunch breaks from their jobs… But still, crowd analysis aside, the parade was the parade?and there just wasn’t much going on there to cheer or ignore (or possibly frown on, if that’s your feeling about it). I must have missed the high-school bands and the usual large contingents of cops and the firemen?not to mention the Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen turned out to march. What I got a glimpse of was a couple of large rolling floats?partied-up trucks with some blind veterans from various wars and some men in their 80’s?obviously from WW2.
I’ve seen a few parades since Vietnam and, depending on the mood of the country?and maybe the distance from the last war?they grow or shrink according to the complex feelings of the times. I remember the lowest, saddest ebb of the parade was probably a couple of years after Vietnam?in the mid-to-late Seventies, when the entire military was dismissed or at least disregarded, if not seen with outright disdain, by a huge number of citizens. I guess it was Reagan’s fake movie-set “Morning in America” that re-pumped the country full of hot patriotic air. Then the parades beefed up and the crowds were bigger and noisier. I suppose, during the time that Bush has been in, and especially early in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq?bogus and futile as they these wars have turned out to be?that there was again that crazy, mindless swelling of “patriotism” and, probably, the parades and the crowds were bigger and had more swagger?just like Mr. Mission-Accomplished himself.
Of course, the enduring, disgusting irony of the whole situation is that The Swaggerer-in Chief and his vicious Vice-President both went out of their way or used illegal influence to avoid serving in Vietnam. Some patriots.
But, no matter… After 9/11, a fever gripped the country. And though it has left us debilitated and prostrate after all this time, for a couple of years after that awful day?”patriotism” (with a good dose of fear at its core) was crashing and stomping through the country again.
But, as usual, I digress…
When I was in my early-to-late twenties and the Vietnam War was in full, terrible bloom, I hated those parades. But even then, and certainly before and after that time, I?ve always had deeply bittersweet feelings about Veteran’s and Memorial Day?and the parades.
First of all (until recently when I’ve gotten aged and crimped in my soul and can’t stand any kind of loud noise), I always loved parades, especially the marching bands and martial music. I was crazy about the drums and the bagpipes; that thrilling sound and feeling of thumping big drums, the gut-rumbling, the heart-twisting vibrations of bagpipes, and the glinting blare of trumpets and rising trill of flutes…
I always wondered if women were moved the same way men were by these military bands and tunes… I doubt it. Women are, I think, more grounded, not easily led into some romantic and mindlessly violent enterprise by the sight and sound of military might.
Think of the movies where you see great armies crash into each other, accompanied by tribal shouts and screams, pounding drums and trumpets and pipes playing? A lot of men, me included, get heated up?there is a kind of elemental testosterone throb seeing and hearing all that stuff. Women generally know better?passing through the living-room with either a frown or a genial pat on the shoulder as they head toward some much more important task, like actually making sure there is food to eat or that the children haven’t fallen out a window.
But… as I said, my feelings, since the horror and shame of Vietnam, have been bittersweet.
What’s the ?sweet? part? Well, I grew up in the Forties and Fifties (and the early Sixties before Vietnam)? Grew up, like almost every American I knew, in awe of the veterans from the World War 2. My neighborhood was filled with vets from the war and a lot of them combat veterans?like, for instance, my uncle who lived next door to me. He was on destroyer escort for 3 and 1/2 years?sailed all over the world. My neighbor on the other side, Mr. Schmidt, had been in the infantry in Europe?fought from D-day to the Battle of the Bulge?straight through to the end. On the Fourth of July, he’d take out his trusty M-1, oiled and polished, go into his backyard and fire off a few rounds for old-time’s sake.Once he even let me fire the rifle. I was about 12 years old and even though he warned me to rest the butt up against my shoulder, I didn’t? and the recoil practically knocked my skinny self down. I had a serious ache and a bruise all over my shoulder for two weeks after that. But I was so thrilled proud I got to fire the rifle?even got ?wounded.? Those men were idolized by boys like me?all over the country, in every town and city (Yes, Governor Palin, even in the cities, we were patriotic!).
This awe, respect and outright idolization of these men and the country’s proud accomplishments in saving the world in WW2 were part of the reason so many boys my age felt a burning need to fight the evil communists… And most of the real men of our fathers’ generation said it was our duty to fight and defeat our country’s enemies, just like they had defeated the Nazi’s and the Japes twenty years before. Of course, times had changed (The Sixties had arrived) and a lot of us weren’t so sure about fighting these strange little people in this little country on the other side of the world. Vietnam didn’t seem very much like the third Reich or the Imperial Japanese Empire… Still, there was so much moral and familial pressure at the time to join up and, in a lot of cases, despite the need for a draft, to put on that uniform and fight for “freedom.”
About a year or two into the war, everything began to turn?and then got worse as the war went on. And it wasn’t just the draft. There was a draft in WW2 as well, but there you didn’t have hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against the war or trying to evade the draft en masse. It was impossible, after a short while and with the simplest observation, not to notice the plain fact that we were more the Imperial Tyrants, and the Viet-Cong and North-Vietnamese were more the true revolutionaries defending their country (I put aside, for the sake of this essay, the brutal behavior of the Viet-Cong? Anyway, who am I to judge?).The Vietnam War was one of the most shameful times in America’s history, and we?re talking about a history filled with (despite the country’s great and shining moments) many great and shameful behaviors?both domestic and foreign.After that war the morale in the military and the whole country hit bottom. So many professional officers and non-commissioned officers had quit the Army and Navy that they were actually forced to advertise in newspaper’s jobs sections for men to enroll.
And since that time, with only a couple of exceptions here and there?our military and tangent military ops-agencies like the CIA have shamed us even more? The great culmination
being this horrible doomed war in Iraq, which has lasted longer than our involvement in WW2.
I was raised to love the country and even the flag itself as the symbol of our great freedom-loving Democracy. When I was eleven years old and a Boy Scout, I was even given the incredible honor of carrying the flag at the head of Laurelton’s Memorial Day parade. I was a skinny little guy and they gave me this big leather strap with a thick leather cup to hold the flagpole. The cup hung right on top of my genitals and though I was bursting with pride at carrying the flag and being at the head of the parade, I was fearing mightily for the state of my privates… Yes, I was a coward and possibly possessed of traitorous sentiments even back then.
But here’s the point… They didn’t teach real history in school back in those days. We knew little about the horrors of slavery or what had happened to the American Indians. We knew next to nothing about America’s raping and stealing overseas, especially in Central and South America and the Philippines… It wasn’t till we got to college that we learned these things. And while our eyes and brains were being opened by the complexity of our history, new history of the worst sort was happening in our streets and in Vietnam.
As I say, from time to time, because we’ve stopped teaching history in this country and because Americans can be shallow, grandiose fools, “Patriotism” has risen up and the country has plunged into war again? with little thought to what we were doing to ourselves or to the poor victims of our Democratic fantasies.Now we are in Iraq and Afghanistan? Well, there are people in Afghanistan that need to be wiped out?they are zealots and murderers and are to be feared by most people in the world, not just the USA. But we may never actually catch them. If we do, we should kill them and get the hell out. Certainly in Iraq, we were wrong, are wrong and continue to be wrong every minute we are in that country. We need to get out?I’d say six months would be the upper limit of how long we should stay.
But still, there are veterans who joined up, left their families and risked their lives for something they were told was right (or, in some cases, because there was little else they were able to do because of personal problems, or they couldn?t find other work.) Whatever the reason, they were and are even now over in other countries risking their lives and putting other people?s lives at risk.
There will always be Veterans Day and Memorial Day? And marching bands; and drums and trumpets and flutes.. And flags flying.
What ought we to feel now? What do we owe these men?and now women?who have been tricked into going to war for us?or have gone into the military for some other reason not involving a false fantasy of patriotism?
We owe them medical and mental-health care? We owe them time and patience and understanding, and jobs, if there are any to be found to give them. But I think the parades should be, and, of a right, ought to be, thin and sparse and sad for a long time.
Its time to retreat from lording it over the rest of the world?time to repair ourselves at home. We are diminished now and we need to understand that. What’s needed is a time of reflection and healing?within the borders of our own country. We still have plenty of awful weapons and a big enough army, navy and air force to defend ourselves if need be. But its time to have our men and women come back home…
They say home is where the heart is… If we’re lucky, we haven’t permanently wrecked our heart (and our home) by our greedy and violent behavior these past decades.
It’s time to take off the ridiculous flag-pins, and roll up the giant flags at the sporting events?most of them are made in an Asian dictatorship anyway! It?s time to try to remember what our first, original war for freedom was all about?an aspiration to decency and equality?to allowing the best in all of us the space and freedom to grow.
We have elected a Black man President of the United States. The entire world, at least for the moment, seems to be dazzled by the possibilities and reality of our Democracy. It would our final shame, here and abroad, to waste this glorious shedding of God?s grace.
– Mike Feder (New York City – November 13, 2008)