Veteran’s Day — a celebration of peace becomes a sacrament of war
My birthday is tomorrow (November 12), which makes Veteran’s Day (November 11) “special” to me, because when I was a young lad, caught up in probative masculinity and Cold War propaganda, I joined the Army and volunteered for the Infantry in Vietnam. This set me on a course, circuitous at times, to becoming a lifer , a career military man, who would go to seven other conflict areas between January 1970 and February 1, 1996, when I was officially retired out of 3rd Special Forces Group.
When I enlisted, and every time I re-enlisted afterward, I took this oath to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
It’s a pro forma exercise, or the entire military would have to go on strike — because in Vietnam, Guatemala, Grenada, El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Somalia, and Haiti . . . others can chime in from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria . . . I never met a single enemy of the Constitution of the United States. In every single instance, I had one small role or another in prosecuting wars against poor people.
November 11th was originally a celebration of the end of war — WWI specifically — and it was celebrated by pacifists for that very reason. I wish we could do that now, and maybe use the day to reflect on the curse, the malignancy, the abomination of war and remember its victims . . . most of whom are not combatants at all. Like an international day of contrition.
Originally called All Veterans Day, to indicate veterans of more than one war and one nation, and it explicitly honored veterans, living and dead . . . as human beings, among many, who had perished or survived in a horrific folly. But after WWII, the US changed the name to Veterans Day, and turned it into a celebration of jingo militarism.
I wonder if we’ll ever have a Civilian Casualties Day, honoring those who were killed, maimed, driven mad, or displaced by war for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, being the wrong nationality, or just being handy when some pack of grunts decides they want to engage in thrill-kills, rape, and arson.
But this is not all veterans, you may say, and I agree. It happens far more often than you think, unless you’re one of us whose seen it, even experienced it . . . the fact that war morally degrades us. Why, then, “veterans”?
Why are veterans — all veterans, regardless of what they did in the military, or what they didn’t do — celebrated based on the single criterion of having a DD-214? “Veterans” is a slippery trope, and when we look more closely at it and how it is used, we begin to apprehend the hypocrisy of Veterans Day and the rot at the center of this thing called the United States of America.
Is it because of risk, or in the sacramental language of American nationalism, “sacrifice” and “service”? Nope.
Military members, on average, are killed in job-related activity at an annual rate of 41 per 100,000 since 1980. Loggers are killed at a rate of 136/100,000/yr. Commercial fisherfolk are killed at a rate of 86/100k/yr. Aircraft pilots and flight engineers are killed at a rate of 55/100,000/yr. Roffers are killed at a rate of 48.6. Why don’t we have Logger’s Day, a Commercial Fishing Day, a Pilot’s Day, or a Roofer’s Day? Is a nation not better served by lumber, fish, and roofs than it is by deploying troops at trememdous expense to destroy the materials, food, and homes of strangers on the other side of the world?
We are not celebrating veterans — a very diverse group with little in common except a DD-214 and the ability to march in formation. We celebrate war and the national masculinity. We celebrate martial nationalism — the truest religion of the United States.
Religion? you ask.
I’m reading a very good book now by Eugene McCarraher entitled The Enchantments of Mammon — How Capitalism became the Religion of Modernity (Belknap, 2019). Dr. McCarraher is easy for me to read, because we have the same playbooks, so to speak. We are both heterodox Catholics, both marinated in the kind of Marx-inflected Aritostelian Thomism embodied by philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre, both equally critical of progress narratives on the one hand and postmodern feigned gullibility on the other. And now we’ve both written books with the term “Mammon” in the title. (Mine is Mammon’s Ecology, from Cascade Books, 2018.) And both of us are preoccupied with Weberian “disenchantment,” that deep alienation produced by what Carolyn Merchant has called “the death of nature” — our objectification of a world excised from concern by the culture-nature dichotomy and sharpened in its lethality by the patriarchal capitalist trope of “Man’s Conquest of Nature.”
McCarraher, a delightfully lyrical writer by the way, emphasizes the sacramental nature of capitalist ideology and how The Market functions as a kind of deity we must all simultaneously embrace and obey, and money is our metaphysics. I haven’t finished this 800-page behemoth yet, in part because I can’t stop underlining and making marginal notes . . . it’s that good. I don’t know if I’m persuaded by his “sacramental Romanticism” alternative yet, but the elegance of his writing and argument is an enjoyment of its own. (I will review this book in the near future for the newly founded Institute for Christian Socialism.)
In the past, and again now for Veteran’s Day, I have had similar things to say about war, based on my reading in particular of Harry Stout’s Civil War history, named Upon the Altar of the Nation, where Stout demonstrates again and again how war is also described (and understood) in sacramental terms. Sacramental imagination has been perverted in many ways by capitalist modernity. Just think of a court proceeding, with its Oye Oye ritualism, the vestments of judges, etc. Its not hard to notice.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas points out that we consider holy that for which we are willing to die . . . nationalists will add to that, the willingness to kill. The nation is God, and war its sanguinary liturgy.
Veteran’s Day — formerly the peace celebration of Armistice Day — is festooned now with flags (our icons), and requires us to pay homage to those whose job it is, or was, at one level or another of personal involvement (most veterans never see actual combat), to kill (and maybe die) for The Holy All Powerful Nation.
Here is where Dr. McCarraher and I differ a bit in our analysis of “the migrations of The Holy” from church to state. Ever since I left the Army and began trying to come to terms with militarism as a social phenomenon, I’ve inevitably landed back on gender — not the postmodern conceit, but a system of power under-girded by the norms of masculinity (even when a few women consent to becoming honorary men by imitating the norms of masculinity).
Behind the cacophony of patriotic posturing, militarism is not actually a separate phenomenon from capitalism, even though one form or another of militarism has prevailed in many societies past and present.
Militarism is a form of worship that glorifies war as salvific. That’s why every war is justified at home by a narrative of “defense.”
Somehow or another, people in the US constantly describe the actions of the military (and veterans) as “defending our freedom.” This is an interesting case of the Emperor having no clothes, given that in my own lifetime, the US has violently occupied Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, bombed people all around the world, and overthrown elected governments (Evo Morales was overthrown in a coup yesterday, so we’ll see where the hand of Uncle Sam is by and by . . . the old joke goes, “Why is there never a coup in Washington DC?” “Because there’s no US Embassy there.”).
Not once, not even once in all that time, has anything the US armed forces done at the behest of the ruling class been remotely connected to protecting American “freedom.” American hegemony? Yes. Profits? You bet. Access to exploitable people and land? That, too. Freedom? Nope.
I actually know people who are critical of all these wars who still deploy “they fought for our freedom” in relation to veterans. Whether this is a polemical tactic I know not . . . it’s a bad one . . . because it reproduces, yet again, the worship of war and the veneration of veterans — our symbolic congregation of saints.
To challenge this trope of “protecting our freedom” is apostasy. Even Colin Kapernick, who was protesting police violence, not war, was stigmatized for kneeling during the National Anthem — a racist bar song about a battle (of course). The anthem is our prayer, played across fluttering flags — our icons, and accompanied during big games by flyovers with military aircraft.
So is war the religion? Is capitalism the religion? Or is nationalism the religion?
Religion: “human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence.”
In the real world, where parsing words and creating captor-categories is an effective cause of absolutely nothing, there is no separation between American nationalism, capitalism, and militarism. None. These are points of view on the same thing which encompasses and integrates them all — these categories are co-evolutionary. Capital’s chosen form of governance is the nation-state, and capital cannot expand to survive without war, and the US’s dominant (but weakening) position in the world system now is secured through a combination of financial and military domination.
In a twist of late capitalist modernity, preparation for war has become essential to the reproduction of capital in the US, what some call “military Keynesianism,” which likewise requires that the value embodied in military production be “used up” to sustain demand for more . We have to go to war now for capitalists to continue to accumulate during our decades long profit crisis.
It’s easy to fall into war-talk in the US, because apart from the fact that the US is militaristic to its bones capitalism itself sets us all up in a Hobbesian framework where each one is for him- or herself and all are in competition with all others. Is it any wonder that the Marxist response to capitalism is a generalized theory of conflict? Perhaps we need a companion theory of cooperation to flesh things out. I have one of those from the Gospels, involving love, but that one’s long disappeared from public view after undergoing its own perversions . . . often in the name of war.
Instead, we have Veteran’s Day, when old men dress up with old medals, and everyone thanks veterans for their service, and the media fall all over themselves in an orgy of saccharine twaddle about “our heroes.” Our collective genuflection before the altars of Leviathan, Mammon, and Mars.
Behind all the war-worship, there are a lot of different kinds of veterans. The military is a route for the poor and the marginalized to a bit of upward mobility, and the holy devotion to nation feels real until the mask is torn off. I joined when I was eighteen. I understand the myriad ways in which the same ruling class that promotes our worship of Leviathan, Mammon, and Mars regard the members of the armed forces the way my late friend Dave Cline said — we are treated like condoms, use once and throw away. That’s a different issue than I’m writing about today. I want us all cared for (Hell, I want everyone cared for!). The wholesale esteem, however, given cheaply to veterans per se, might be a handy bit of social capital; it is nonetheless pernicious in its own reproduction.
I am a veteran. I am not one of your saints. I did not defend your freedom. I am not your hero. War is not glorious, it is the ultimate human obscenity. This is not my holiday.