What Our Veterans Deserve
This Veterans’ Day, is the 104th anniversary of the WWI armistice. After the Second World War ended with two more surrenders, Armistice Day became the federal holiday Veterans’ Day, honoring all military veterans from all wars because of their service and their sacrifice.
Today, veterans are often recognized and greeted with “thank you for your service.” Those from the Vietnam era realize that this respectful recognition was not always the norm. During that war and its aftermath, many of us were treated contemptuously for being in the Service during a war not of our choosing or making, but one created by politicians lacking scruples and wanting the benefits of being “tough” war leaders. Still, we did our duty, and most were proud to serve even for an ungrateful nation. In that not so distant era, my comrades and I were cussed at, spit on, and often denied service in bars and restaurants at home, particularly in the nation’s capital that created the war. That foul treatment, though, was insignificant compared to those who didn’t come home or returned with severe wounds.
When we are thanked for our service today, many vets feel awkward and even a little embarrassed for the recognition of something we considered our duty. We are thankful nonetheless, if for no other reason than that it’s better to be dressed up than dressed down
I am most thankful for the opportunity to serve with, and come to appreciate, so many fellow shipmates from across the diverse make-up that is these United States — working class, professional class, poor, affluent, middle class, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, straight, and gay. In more than thirty years in the Navy, I learned just how innovative, competent, and high-minded were the vast majority of those with whom I served.
I have vivid memories of so many shipmates. Bonds were formed in the comradeship of overcoming challenges under adverse circumstances. These times also brought moments of devil-may-care levity that broke tension. The instructive experiences made for lessons that I have used positively ever since. My service showed me that there is much greater good in humanity, particularly in adversity, than bad, and that most people can accomplish far greater deeds than they could ever imagine by having someone not just believe in them, but insist that there is no other choice than to dig in and accomplish what is at hand. We took it one step at a time. In tough times, we got along and got it done by setting aside our differences, not accentuating them.
If you have time when you thank someone for his service, you might just ask what he is thankful for in his service, and whether he would like more wars. You will be surprised by the answers. A simple question and interest like this might help bring more understanding and togetherness to a country in which so few have served and contributed and so many choose to divide and criticize.
And when honoring veterans for their service, you might think to ask your elected representative why so many elected politicians and unelected bureaucrats, most of whom have never been operational on active duty, feel the need to push for distant, meaningless wars that will kill and maim so many good people on both sides. I say meaningless because in the end, all of these wars and conflicts in this century have been quietly dropped and the mistakes ignored after they failed miserably.
In all wars, servicemen don’t want to die, but if they have to die, they hope it will be for a good cause that prevails. None of these recent causes was necessary or good, and none prevailed, yet Washington, D.C. seems unable to stop itself from pursuing more wars. For the intellectuals and their families that don’t feel a need to participate in the fight, this hope is irrelevant. The hue and cry from the government officials and defense intellectuals for more wars now seems to be our first, not our last resort.
For a country that has been at war or armed conflict constantly in the 21st century, it is peculiar that only 18% of Congress — the smallest percentage ever — has served in the military, when in the 1950s through the 1990s, it was well over half who had served. In the White House and the West Wing, an even smaller percentage served. None of the presidents since President GHW Bush-41 (a torpedo bomber pilot in WWII) ever served in a war or in a deployed, operational military billet. Even fewer in the courts have ever gone in “harm’s way” like Supreme Court justice Byron “Whizzer” White. He was future admiral Arleigh Burke’s seagoing intel officer in the Solomon Islands Campaign in WWII.
And what of “the best and the brightest” intellectual elites from the Ivy League? Harvard, Yale, and Princeton graduated the likes of John Bolton, Bill Kristol, Max Boot, Doug Feith, David Frum, the Kagan brothers, Richard Perle, and Ken Pollack, who all became self-proclaimed neocon “experts” on war. Not one was a vet, nor their progeny. Worse yet, none has ever “strategized” a triumphant conflict or been involved in any successful war, because none of them understands the popular mood for war, his enemy’s resolve, or the fog or friction of war as veterans do. In short, unlike vets, these intellectuals leading the politicians lack common sense, with no “skin in the game.”
The sentiment of many servicemen through American history has been that if they had to lose their life in battle, they wanted it to be for something worthwhile and lasting. This is the true meaning of sacrifice, but to non-vet politicians and elite bureaucrats, it seems as though these war losses on both sides mean little. There is no atonement or effort to avoid the same mistake in the future — just more wars. “Bond King” Jeffrey Gundlach tweeted at the beginning of the Ukrainian war, “Certain interests in the United States seemingly cannot tolerate even six months of not being involved in war outside our borders.”
In looking at leadership for the country, William F. Buckley observed, “I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” With World War I in mind, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” Both observations have the ring of truth, particularly in an era of political generals.
A commonsense conclusion is that war should be left as much to the people, and more particularly veterans, as any other body; it is always the people, and specifically the veterans, who expend the most blood in war. Veterans understand and expect hardships as long as their leaders share the risks of those on the front line. Is it any surprise that those in positions of responsibility don’t share that perspective, because they have never been in that position?
Pat McKim, a graduate of the Naval Academy, the Naval War College, and Harvard, is a retired Navy Captain (Reserve) and served Sen. Wilson (R-Calif.) on SASC. In business he ran internet software companies. Today he invests, writes, and is working on his first book about the five commanding generals who became president.