Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Day After Veterans Day

It used to be called Armistice Day, and celebrated peace ...

I wanted to post something about my dad again for Veterans Day but didn't get the chance. Now it occurs to me there's something symbolic about celebrating a bit late.

Have a look at this dashing young army officer. Dad posed in front of the League of Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland, where he got to go on leave immediately after the end of World War II. Seems the picture of youthful health doesn't he? But the photo lies. This vacation was purchased at the expense of putting his body in harm's way and having it punctured by a bullet. Not to mention the rest of the horrors he had managed to live through.

His wound was treated, and it healed. The pain went away except that it ached in certain kinds of weather. But there was scar tissue in one of his lungs that made him susceptible to chest colds. Ten years after the war he spent two weeks in the hospital with pneumonia in the middle of a Miami summer. He recovered, but would come down with bronchitis every winter like clockwork. One of the things I knew him by as a child was his cough, so familiar to me that I can still hear it.

He got in the habit of treating himself with penicillin pills that a friend who worked at the VA hospital got for him. It's possible that by doing this he created his very own drug resistant strain of pneumonia. The disease hit him again at the age of 50, and this time it failed to respond to treatment. So you could say that he died from his wound 30 years after it had been inflicted.

This national holiday was originally called Armistice Day to commemorate the end of the First World War, "the war to end all wars." It was to celebrate a peace which was supposed to be kept by the newly formed League of Nations. Sad to say, the League failed largely because the United States did not join. So there we have my father visiting its mortal remains in Geneva, the tomb of a dream of world peace, with the blood and ashes of another war fresh upon him.

In his too short life he saw other wars from the home front -- Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and a list of other "military interventions" too small to be dignified by being named. Armistice Day has become Veterans Day, and increasingly celebrates not just the sacrifices of soldiers, but the so-called glory of their achievements. The day comes wrapped in flags as well as wreaths and flowers. Misty-eyed we are supposed to march to the drum into the future, endlessly supplying new bodies eager for the grave.

But as our new crop of wounded veterans grows, we should attend to the hurt, and keep that foremost in our minds. We know now that pretty much everyone returns wounded from war, and that the effects last a lifetime. Brain damage, suicides, addictions, and homelessness are as much a result of military service as death in battle, and often harder for families to deal with.

When will there really be a war to end them all? Probably not unless there is a war that puts an end to everything, which was always the threat in the Cold War. But there could be a peace to end all war. And if that should ever happen we will really have an Armistice to commemorate.

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