For my grandfather, who was part of “the Greatest Generation” (only about 3% of whom are still living), the 32 months he spent in the Army in Europe during World War II were some of the most memorable and meaningful of his long life.
My grandfather loved telling us about the busiest weekend of his life: Flag Day weekend in June of 1941. “On Friday I received my commission from the U.S. Army. On Saturday I graduated from college. On Sunday I got married. And on Monday I reported to Camp Roberts for active duty.” (I told you that about my grandfather four years ago, but am counting on you not to remember.)
My grandfather was clear about who he was fighting against, what he was fighting for, and for what greater good he was willing to sacrifice his life. He passed away a few years ago, but one of my enduring memories of him is listening to his stories about his old Army buddies and their exploits, or catching up with him after his annual reunion with the friends and their wives.
Talking to my father, who was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, is a different experience. He’ll answer questions when asked, but he doesn’t, like my grandfather, spontaneously recall with nostalgia his wartime experiences. “Our pride as Vietnam vets,” my dad says, “is that there has been nearly half a century since the last draft.”
Ironically, my father says, our country is more unified when military and mandatory federal service is more prolific in larger society. “Is war our only unifier?” he asks. “Is that progress?”
If war is a unifier, bring it on. Our country needs nothing more than unity right now. Goodness, haven’t the past four years, the past seven months, the past eight days, shown us that? So if war is what it takes to bring us together, let’s engage.
But let’s refocus and redefine the battle. Let’s make it a war on COVID-19. A war on racial inequality. A war on shrinking public education funding. A war on melting glaciers and tinder-dry forests. A war on systemic and generational poverty. A war on crippling partisanship. A war on the rhetoric that drives us apart when we could accomplish so much more by working together.
On Veterans Day, honor our veterans. At the expense of their own mental, emotional and physical health, they went, unified, into battle to secure peace. Upholding the peace they fought for and the unity they maintained is the least we can do.