By Victor D. Infante
Veteran’s Day is odd for a pacifist. In some ways, it feels almost hypocritical when you spend the rest of the year in moral opposition to violence in general and warfare in particular, especially when you feel that the idea of a just war is dubious, at best. When you believe there is an understandable war, or an inevitable war, but not a just one. When you believe one need only peer backward just a little ways to see the myriad mistakes that had to happen for even the most easily justified war to occur.
And yet, it’s hard not to admire the men and women who choose to serve their country in that way. Maybe it’s just conviction recognizing conviction: You have your beliefs, after all, and you’re willing to stand by them. As are they. You can admire that, even if your conviction means not raising your hands, and theirs necessitates picking up a gun. Maybe it’s that soldiers are often the only other people you meet that understand violence the way you do. That’s a big deal. Maybe it’s just that you can recognize bravery when you see it, that there is something innately noble about someone who is willing to fight and die for others, even if you don’t always entirely agree that’s what’s actually happening.
My maternal grandfather fought in World War II. He lost a brother there. His family has been in what’s now called the United States since before the Revolution, and has served in every American war up to the first Gulf War. My father, whose family were 20th century immigrants from Italy, fought in Vietnam. Sometimes their bravery and sacrifice weighs on me, as though I should have followed in their footsteps. Other times, I think it informs my pacifism, that the decisions I’ve made have been influenced heavily by what I’ve come to understand about my own family’s history, which is hilarious if you knew how often my grandfather and I disagreed on everything.
Maybe I can look at a veteran and see a bit of my father, who died young, just a few years after the war, and my grandfather, to whom I left too many things unsaid. Maybe, in that, I can connect to them, their service and battles, and ultimately, their humanity.
Today’s military is an all-volunteer force. We don’t have an active draft at the moment, which means everyone there made a conscious choice to serve. That didn’t mean they all made those decisions for the same reasons, though. Some served out of idealism, or patriotism. Some saw it as the best road out of poverty or violence. We told some people it would be a path to citizenship, and then betrayed them. We lie to our veterans a lot. We promise them health care, and only sometimes give it. We promise them education, and only sometimes give it. It’s not that we intentionally lie to them, I just don’t think we think about how solemn those promises really were. We’ve gotten really bad about breaking a lot of promises to a LOT of people, lately. It doesn’t speak well to our character.
There is a point where my pacifism is irrelevant in the face of their need. If they need to be thanked for their service, it costs me nothing to do that. My thanks is freely given, and impugns my ethics not at all. If they, like many Vietnam vets, still need to be welcomed home, then I welcome them, wholeheartedly. If they need greater assistance, dealing with the physical and mental ravages of war … that’s outside of my personal ability to be much help. That’s a place where we need to work together, collectively, to ensure that they get what they need. Our personal politics don’t much matter in that instance. What matters is we, as a nation, made them a promise, and we need to keep it. There’s time enough for our disagreements later.
Radius Editor-in-chief Victor D. Infante has recently released an ebook of essays, “Feels Like Failure, Every Time: Thoughts on Writing, Pop Culture, Politics and Violence, 2004-2018,” featuring an introduction by Mindy Nettifee and a cover by Lea Deschenes. You can purchase a copy for $5 here.