I prayed for veterans on Sunday in worship, especially those who have been injured physically, emotionally and morally. I’m glad I did that, but I am uncomfortable about the way the church’s concern with caring for people in the armed forces and veterans so often morphs into a blessing—even an enthrallment—with the military.
We get church newsletters from different congregations, and I see many of their websites and posts on line. Almost all of them this month had special recognition for Veteran’s, including special worship services. But I do ask: when was the last time you saw an announcement for a special service for union members near Labor Day or May Day? Have you ever seen a church newsletter promoting support or prayer for those who have worked to oppose our unjust wars?
November 11 was originally Armistice Day, meant to commemorate the treaty at the end of World War I. It was meant to celebrate peace, not military strength. That treaty, with its heavy punishments of Germany, helped fuel the rise of Nazism. And our triumph in World War II, in my opinion, helped fuel our invasions of the last sixty years: Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Granada, Panama, Iraq, not to mention all our proxy wars in Latin America.
I’m not a pacifist. There may be times when violence, including military force, is necessary. But most of our wars since World War II (all of which has meant us warring against nations and peoples much poorer than us) don’t fall into that category. And every use of violence creates the conditions for more violence, if not directly causing violence.
Part of that violence is turning soldiers—from our country and others—into killers, and then not doing enough to turn that killing off when they come back. Which may be impossible to do in the first place. A big part of the violence in El Salvador today is because of the oppression and violence for decades, and all the young people who served in the army or the guerrillas who have not truly reentered society. We live in a very anxious time in our country, as seen by the upswing of racial violence and the exploding scapegoating of immigrants and the poor. We’ve all heard a lot about suicides of vets. I fear we may be hearing more about homicides, if we don’t change our worldview and our practice about the use of force.
There was a report on the BBC News today about how some veterans don’t like to be called heroes, because they don’t feel that adequately represents who they are, and the messiness of what they had to do. One ex-marine talked about how “maybe the pendulum has swung too far from the guilt over what happened to Viet Nam vets”. I think that “guilt” is exactly the right word—for what we did to the vets returning from that war, and what we did to the Vietnamese. We won’t assuage that guilt by simply thanking vets “for their service”. We need to come to terms with what was done in our name, and what continues to be done.
So today, I will honor my parents and my other relatives who served in the military, as well as many friends and parishioners over the years. But I will also honor those who have worked against unjust wars—including veterans like John Kerry and Ron Kovic in the Viet Nam era, and Camilo Mejia and others who resisted the Iraq war. And because of my Irish heritage and my service now in a heavily Mexican community, I want to honor the San Patricios—the Saint Patrick battalion: Irish-Americans and Irishmen who defected during the Mexican War to fight for Mexico, because of the cruelty and injustice of what we still are reaping the fruits of.
This poem was written in honor of my father, Walter Hansel, who was threatened to be hit for speaking German when he went to kindergarten in 1917 (during World War I), and whose German helped the country of his birth during World War II and the occupation. It was first published in Ilanot Review, an English language journal in Israel. Ironically, the issue whose theme was “Conflict” came out just before the last war in Gaza.
A man hung from his parachutelike a seed softly whirligigging down,
shouting “Don’t shoot—I surrender!”
in the tongue of the enemy, your first tongue.
He had no way to reach
his weapon, but the men under
you did, and in a minute—though your voicewas raised and your rank commanded
obedience—it was the county fair
in Shreveport, in Pembina, in New Ulm
and New Prague, step right up, everyone
wins a prize, the lights flashing,
the girls all giggles, and bullets
and a ribbon for the man who hits the nose.
Then, silence, the head of the boyon his chest, his body limp
in its harness, gravity doing
its work. The son of German cousins—
perhaps the grandson of your grandfather’s friend—
spoiled blood over his uniform. Father,
why did you tell me this storyand not my brothers?
Your memories are like your hands:
big, calloused, open.
His boots newly shined, pulled him
down to the earth he finally
met as a shroud, a nothing,
a home. Your men did not speak.
They held their rifles across
their chests, as if bearing sick children.
Be justice. Be beauty. Be honor.