At Mass this past Sunday, before we began, one of our priests asked everyone who had been in the Armed Forces of the United States to stand, whereupon those standing received vigorous applause. With very few exceptions, I spent more time in the military than anyone there, and I did not stand. I did not applaud. And I struggle several times a year with this dilemma in my church, the only church building in town that does not display an American flag in its sanctuary. There is one outside, though. If it were taken down, there would be a scandal so scandalous that few if any would stand up to defend such an action.
I struggle, too, with my hatred of that flag. It swells up in me in that way that loathing can only be felt by those who once loved a thing. Like the ex-smoker's hatred of tobacco. Like the recovering junkie's hatred of smack. As is sometimes said, "if you can spot it, you got it." No one hates the sin like the sinner.
And I struggle with the hegemonic white farm-county nationalism surrounding me, because there are so many people here to whom I am tied by bonds of family, friendship, and plain affection, who are possessed of this hegemonic nationalism. A lot of nationalists are decent, courteous, selfless people. I struggle with my hatred of the flag, because I'm drinking poison and hoping it will kill the idol. But I love people who are nationalists. Quite a few of them. It's to them I need to explain myself, to explain why I can't worship at the altar of the nation any more, and why being "thanked for my service" puts me on the spot and so discomfits me.
It is Veterans Day again, and I won't reiterate the common - and sometimes justifiable - complaint that "we" pay great lip service to veterans, but "we" don't take very good care of them. Sometimes it is true that actual veterans fall through the cracks of society even within a highly militarized nation like our own. Sometimes, this is also just another form of veteran veneration, our homage to the saints of The Nation. That's not what I'm on about this year, this Veterans Day.
Another thing I'm not on about is why we have a Veterans Day and not a Sanitation Workers Day, or a Roofers Day, or a Nurses Day. Certainly, these are hard, thankless (veterans can't rightly claim their work is thankless), occasionally risky jobs that arguably contribute more to our flourishing than armed forces running checkpoints in Helmund Province or kicking in doors in Ramadi or virtuously circulating capital in the tittie-bars of Fayetteville or Colorado Springs. It's an issue, but it's not what I'm on about today.
And I'm not going to hate on members of the Armed Forces. I have kids in the Army, after all; and I love them. I know veterans, quite a few, and for the most part, I feel great affection for them. One blog post won't undo our collective bewilderment by the American Civil Religion, with its mythology posing as history, and with its deep entrainment almost from birth. I can't explain that US soldiers are not "protecting freedom" (our "freedom" is threatened by Iraqis or Salvadorans or Vietnamese?) There are layers upon layers of mystification to get through, and at each layer there is a protective shell of affective resonance - that sense of the sacred that will bring tears to people's eyes. I can't argue my way past that, not in a blog post, not in a book, not in ten books, not in a thousand books. That resonance beats evidence to the finish line every time. Because it has a huge head start. So I'm not making that argument here either.
And I'm not going to tell you how wounded I am by military experience. I realize that soldier's sometimes suffer from their experiences, but this has become another truism that conceals the truth. I should suffer from nightmares, speaking for myself. I used the nighttime cries of a child once to adjust artillery fire. (Wanna thank me for that?) It is just that I suffer. I burned people's homes so I could fit in with my fellow soldiers. Nightmares don't even come close to what happened to my victims. I threatened people and made them believe they were about to die, people who were where they lived, and me a foreign invader. I deserve insomnia, hypervigilance, an elevated startle reflex. I did things I won't write about here; but here is the he and the she of it: I am not the victim.
I met a man, a Vietnamese consular delegate, about 10 years ago in Sydney. He was about my age, and he was from the area where I was an invading infantryman, Northern Binh Dinh Province. We were at a conference together, and I'd been asked to speak briefly during lunch. And I couldn't concentrate on whatever polemic I was expected to deliver, and without thinking, I turned to that man, and I told him in front of all those people that we had been near one another in 1970, him as a guerrilla fighter and me as an invader, and I suddenly found myself apologizing to him through a shower of tears. I came down from the podium, and this man came and put his arms around me, and we were both crying.
He didn't thank me for my service. He did so much more than that.
I can't explain that to someone who admires me because I am a "Vietnam veteran," or just a veteran.
My hope is that some day, instead of finding gratitude for our "service to the nation" in church, we can find what that man gave me one midday in Australia a decade ago.