On Veterans Day

Before I begin, a word of introduction to my first post at TAS. I’m a graduate student in philosophy at UC Berkeley, and when I’m not pretending to write a dissertation (which is to say, quite a lot of the time), I blog here and also contribute occasionally to @TAC. I’ve also written stuff for a few Web and print publications, with this and this and this probably my favorites of the lot. Oh, and being asked to Reihan to contribute to this blog may be the coolest thing to happen to me since I took up blogging and freelancing. Thanks for letting me be part of the discussion.


Having had two grandfathers who served as officers in the Navy during the Second World War, there are lots of reasons why an occasion like Veterans Day should lead me to get all reflective, but in fact it’s my own response to the 9/11 attacks that has been foremost in my mind today. As I’ve written before, one part of my immediate reaction to those events was to flirt with the possibility of dropping out of college and joining the military, and I really do think that if my parents had been more supportive of the idea then I might well have gone through with it. Then, and in the weeks and months that followed, I was every bit as sure of America’s need to turn to military force as I was of the good it would bring about, and I saw no reason why I shouldn’t be a part of that response.

It’s hard for me to articulate the causes of my gradual transition from that position to my present near-pacifism, but that can be a subject for another post. (Or not.) The particular question that grips me on a day like today, though, is that of what would have happened had I chosen a different path in the autumn of 2001 – not, I mean, whether I’d be alive or what my position on the use of military force would presently be, but what I should think of my counterpart selves in the worlds where I did choose to enroll (is there a more ordinary way to put that?), and by extension what I should think of those soldiers past and present who have actually done what I have not.

Part of the trouble, and I suppose this complaint may be an old trope by now, lies in the language we use to talk about this sort of question. “Support the troops!” is the usual phrase – if not as a tool for war supporters to accuse their opponents of unspeakable heresies, then with “Bring them home!” tacked on at the end, as if to show that hollow sloganeering is good for the gander as well. By misconstruing the complicated relationships between respect for military service and support for our military’s actions, such talk gets in the way of the kind of serious scrutiny demanded of citizens of a democracy, especially one whose armed forces spend as much time fighting as ours do.

Talk of honor, which along with “serve” and “sacrifice” was one of the verbs most frequently used in Vice President Cheney’s remarks at Arlington National Cemetery today, may be an improvement on this: not essentially uncritical in the way that “support” can seem to be; much more suggestive of the seriousness of what is at stake; and certainly less abused in the public rhetoric surrounding military service. But the Vice President’s remarks had shortcomings of their own: they were filled with the usual talk of protecting our nation, opposition to the enemies of freedom, and the nobility of the American cause, with much less said about the painful realities endured by those whose sacrifices he was supposed to be commemorating. And whatever answer we end up giving, how can we truly honor the depth of those sacrifices without asking ourselves some hard questions about the justice of the wars we’ve sent our soldiers to fight?

Sorry – I feel like I’ve gone on long enough, and most of I’ve managed to do is just to explain why a few possible responses to my original conundrum aren’t sufficient. The root of my present turmoil may lie in the fact that we tend to use a day like this in precisely the opposite of the way I think we should: as an occasion to celebrate America and the nobility of her wars, with the terribleness of the horrors faced by those who’ve fought and died in them being pushed to the side. Perhaps we need to bear in mind that this day was originally set aside to recall the end of a war – an occasion that war supporters and opponents alike can recognize as a joyous one, and an event that of course means vastly more to those who’ve fought than to those of us who simply follow the news from home.