How should a pacifist approach Veteran’s Day? It’s a day that always makes me a little uneasy. On this day my social media feeds are filled with recognition of those who have served in the military. And I am usually silent. I have no desire to disrespect veterans or those who are in military service now, some of whom are family members of mine. So I usually let the day pass without thinking too much about the unease that I feel with every post. But I don’t post either, because I do not want to condone the system of violence that underlies much of the messages we hear about the military. Can we respect individuals while also critiquing a government that makes really poor choices with their use of the military? Can we honor the service of these individuals while also promoting the way of peace and questioning whether being a military power is at all wise? I recognize that many may think my questions are in bad taste on this day. I anticipate that my silence is exactly what quite a few people would prefer. So, I’m choosing a compromise. I’m posting this blog on the day after Veteran’s Day is observed. But I am still posting it because I think these things are important things to be having a conversation about.
Over the last week I have seen the evidence of the public school system’s indoctrination of my children as we approached this day. And I feel a responsibility to point out the problems I see in the messages they are receiving. My 9 year old has started musing about which branch of the military he will join when he grows up, and asking me again why it is that he can’t play violent video games. My 5 year old gave me his handout about veterans and asked me to read the words across the bottom of the sheet — “Thank you for being brave.”
Now, I know that these things seem harmless to most people, and maybe even beneficial. But to this pacifist momma, they make me cringe. I have told my 9 year old that just because his parents are pacifists does not mean that he has to be. He’s asked me if I will be upset if he grows up and joins the military and I have said that I do not plan to meddle in his life when he is an adult. It will be his decision. But right now, as his parent, I also feel the need to make sure he is hearing more than one message, because I know his fascination with the idea comes from an American ideal that I do not support–the glorification of violence.
And my 5 year old? This bothers me perhaps the most. None of my other kids did their Kindergarten year in an American public school, and I am discouraged that the message begins so young. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset that they taught him what a veteran is, or that they encouraged him to thank them. But I am upset with the way the message was framed. When we discussed it today, these were his words: “Veterans are all around us, like God. They are there to protect us. And they have guns so they can keep us safe from bad guys.” Oh man, there are so many problematic pieces to this that it is hard to even know where to begin. And in our conversation while I was yet again trying to convince my son that “bad guys” do not actually exist he responded. “You are wrong. They do. They are in other countries.” Gah! Do you know how hard it is to deconstruct these ideas once they are in a 5 year old’s head? Now, granted, I am not entirely sure he understood what he was saying. He was upset with me because he thought that I was somehow telling him that veterans were the bad guys, and I wasn’t. So, maybe he just meant that veterans are in other countries. Hopefully I misunderstood him and he wasn’t actually repeating some nationalist agenda. I don’t know. But I am frustrated. Somehow my 5 year old believes that guns exist to keep him safe, and that the world is somehow made up of good guys and bad guys, a dichotomy that is possibly even defined by national boundaries.
The simple phrase–thank you for being brave–he has really latched on to. Can those who serve in the military be brave? Absolutely! But something about this message seems to equate military service unequivocally with bravery, which belittles the actual brave actions that do occur on the battlefield and completely ignores the brave acts of those peaceful warriors who choose to stand in opposition to a government that sends these men and women into war often needlessly. “Hero” is another word that I hear a lot on this day. Individual military personnel often do heroic things, but please do not tell my children that just putting on a uniform of brown or green or blue automatically makes them a hero. Why does that bother me? Because if we think that a person’s actions are automatically heroic because of their uniform, it becomes too easy to justify harm in the name of heroism. It becomes too easy to act out questionable orders in the name of duty. It becomes too easy to kill in the name of patriotism. Last week a veteran with a gun (someone who in my son’s words should be there to protect him) entered a bar and killed someone else’s sons and daughters. We must be able to critique this. We must be able to ask the hard question of whether or not our military, our government, our system that glorifies violence in the name of patriotism had something to do with this.
Veterans are important. Their sacrifices and service should be remembered and recognized. But not blindly. We must open our eyes and see how our country has broken many of them, and not be afraid to ask the question: Was it worth it? We can love and honor and respect those who’ve chosen to serve while also speaking up against the violence the larger system perpetrates. And we can tell our children the whole story, the true reasons wars are fought, the heavy weight of responsibility they will carry if they choose to pick up a gun in the name of their country, and the humanity that exists on both sides of national borders; so that when the choice is theirs, they can look beyond the rhetoric and make a truly informed choice.