Two veterans get the last words

A Connecticut reader who describes himself as a paratroop veteran from the Korean War era who was lucky to be assigned to Germany, “rather than that slaughter house of Korea,” writes:

I find this convention that has developed of saying, “thank you for your service” off-putting. It immediately shuts the door.  Nothing more to say except, “Thank you.” Puts us in a box. You will never hear veterans speak to each other this way.

Besides, the dirty little secret is most of us had the time of our lives. It was great fun.

Another reader sends along this message from his brother, a Vietnam vet. It originally appeared on the very active Facebook page of the Savannah, Georgia, chapter of Veterans for Peace, a veterans organization that promotes public awareness of the costs of war, and seeks to restrain governments from waging it.

There is no glory in war, no honor in victory. Every soldier is not a hero. Being a veteran I hope that one day youth will lay down their weapons, all youth across the face of the earth and refuse to fight the wars of old men. The rich make the wars the poor fight so the rich can become more rich. If war was not profitable there would be no war.

If you really want to honor a veteran, truly honor those who have served, do not thank us for our service, remove the ribbons from your cars, and promise all those who suffered and died and those who continue to suffer that no more veterans will be made. You see, I am a Viet Nam veteran from 1969-1971. In many ways I am still there. We carry it forever. It may dim but it is always there.

So, as a veteran, I beg you do not send your sons, your daughters, you spouses, your brothers or sisters off to die in someone else’s war. I close my eyes and look upon those horrors that we committed and those done to us by our own government. Hug your children, your loved ones and hold them near. Don’t let them die alone in some faraway country.

When you hear the drums of war and see the flags unfurl and the politicians making their speeches, grab you loved ones and say no more. Then you may say you have truly honored a veteran.

Remembrance Day reflections – with updates

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in the United States, where right-wing scoundrels turned patriotic symbols into political cudgels, left me with a lifelong aversion to flags, ribbons, lapel pins, and other obligatory trappings of national fealty. When I moved to Canada, this aversion morphed into a disinclination to wear poppies.

As best I can tell, most Canadians see the poppy as a neutral symbol of respect for veterans. Social pressure to wear it is strong. Acquaintances and strangers alike view my failure to fall in step as inexplicable, disrespectful, and distasteful. I regret this. After years of attempts to explain my position, I mostly avoid the conversation today, and I regret that, too. I can only offer the hope that the occasional outlier’s refusal to adopt mandatory, state-sanctioned idolatry is healthy for democracy.

poppy (1) In a Facebook post this morning, Coast journalist Tim Bousquet, who also grew up in the US, offered a succinct expression of one of my reasons for eschewing the opium flower:

  1. Kill 10 million boys pointlessly.
  2. Honour pointlessly killed boys with anti-war Remembrance Day ceremonies.
  3. Morph “honouring pointlessly killed boys” into “honouring veterans.”
  4. Militarize Remembrance Day ceremonies.
  5. Label those opposed to war as anti-veteran.
  6. Anti-veteran = anti-troop = unpatriotic.
  7. More war.


(For the record, Bousquet included an eighth point:  8. Profit! I don’t know that he’s wrong about that, but it’s not central to my own allergic reaction to tendentious heraldry.)

[UPDATE] Scott Taylor has a gutsy column on bullying around the poppy in today’s Herald

[UPDATE 2] Contrarian reader Greg Marshall writes:

I wear a poppy religiously, to the point that, thanks to the crappy pins they use on them, I think I have bought half-a-dozen this year. It is not because of social pressure, but because I grew up doing it, and it feels right. My family was a veteran’s family, and most of my parents’ friends were vets as well. They were lucky, since few of them had been at the “sharp end,” and did not have to wear the emotional effects of combat. That was for my high-school physics teacher, who did a tour on Halifaxes with 6 Group, and was a shadow of a man.

I don’t share all your views on this issue, but I certainly understand and sympathize with them, and Bousquet’s points are not without merit. I wish they were not. I can’t put on the poppy without thinking of the waste of life these wars have caused, and the utter pointlessness of it.

[UPDATE 3] My old Daily News colleague Ryan Van Horne writes:

In attempting to explain why he doesn’t wear a poppy, Tim Bousquet takes the worst possible reasons one could have for wearing one and assumes that everybody wears them only for those reasons.

World War 1 was a colossal waste of life and a pointless war. World War 2, while also a colossal waste of life, at least served a purpose for fighting back against tyranny. War is not a glorious endeavour, but a sometimes necessary evil.

One of the things that soldiers fought and died for was the freedom that you, Tim, and I enjoy to choose to wear a poppy and to write columns and blog posts without fear of retribution. If you eschew the poppy because it is against your principles, I hope that you and Tim at least recognize that young men died in a war to preserve that freedom.

I’ve never fought in a war and I don’t know any veterans, but I have three sons who are the same age as many of the young men who went off to fight in World War 2. I know that a generation made a huge sacrifice and I appreciate that. That is why I wear a poppy and always will.

[UPDATE 4] Debra Forsyth-Smith writes:

As someone who lived in the U.S. for some years, I certainly applaud your point of view on many symbolic gestures which in reality are confusing at best and meaningless at worst.

But jingoism is not the same as respect and remembrance of sacrifice.  It is in this spirit I wear the poppy.  In the very same spirit, I respect your decision not to.

[UPDATE 5] Robert Collins writes:

I respect your opinion on wearing, or not wearing, the poppy, as I am sure many veterans do as well.  I try to wear one but often lose it or don’t have money with me when I see them available, or I hand mine to someone else who “needs” it for a particular situation.

Regardless, it is a personal decision and a personal choice. The problem that I have with your position (and Tim’s) is that it is as political as the very reason you state for not wearing it. It is the Yin to the Yang in the argument. The poppy is not political. It is very simple. It is to remind us of individuals who died, often in tragic, horrible, and often very lonely situations.  Some of them were in that situation knowing full well why. Some were there because they were lied to and some didn’t understand why they were there but were told it was the right thing to do.

I see it as being similar to the ceremony in Berwick for Harley Lawrence. No one was there to make a statement about mental health or homelessness or anything else. They were there simply to honor a fellow human being who died in a tragic, horrible and very lonely situation.

It is too easy for us today to assume ulterior motives and become cynical about everything around us. For me, the poppy is a sanctuary from that to a simple and basic compassion for another person’s sacrifice and loss. It can be very liberating and comforting if you allow it to take you there, but don’t feel you have to let it.

Memories of Kandahar

Who said this?

There is no piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by one of our soldiers at some time or another. Nevertheless much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centers, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize.

Our soldiers are not to blame. They’ve fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills…

About 99 percent of the battles and skirmishes that we fought in Afghanistan were won by our side. The problem is that the next morning there is the same situation as if there had been no battle. The terrorists are again in the village where they were — or we thought they were — destroyed a day or so before.

Are these the words of some Canadian or American soldier-turned-dissident? Or perhaps a US General pushing President Barack Obama for more troops?

Nope. This was Sergei Akhromeyev, commander of the Soviet armed forces, speaking to the Soviet Politburo on Nov. 13, 1986. Two years later, the Soviet Union abandoned Afghanistan after nine futile years. US and Canadian troops, who have been there almost as long, will inevitably do the same. The only question is when.

Victor Sebestyen, author of “Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire,” recalls the remarks in today’s edition of the New York Times. He points out that humiliation in Afghanistan began the rapid unravelling of the Soviet dictatorship. The US, too, is likely to pay a lasting price in lost prestige and power as a result of the humiliation that awaits it in withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Contrarian is one who believes the US and Canada went into Afghanistan for good reasons: in hot pursuit of those who planned and executed the 9/11 attacks. The US relied too heavily on air power, thereby forfeiting any chance of an early success in that narrow goal. Then the Bush administration stupidly allowed itself to get distracted in the senseless invasion of Iraq.

Our current effort to occupy Afghanistan is doomed.