Thoughts on Veterans Day means
The Sounder article on Veterans’ Day described children at the public school ceremony waving flags, and adult speakers proclaiming that veterans have preserved our freedoms and our way of life. A group I belong to was asked by representatives from the American Legion to knit winter caps for veterans who lacked the wherewithal to afford warm clothing.
In my view, it’s important that Veterans Day is observed well; and that veterans in need receive the support they deserve. But how best to honor veterans and their contributions is a complex question. When we oversimplify our past the price paid is too high.
Take, as an example, the defeat of Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II. In that war – often labeled the “good war” – over half a million Americans died fighting in Europe, the Pacific, and Asia. Was their sacrifice to save our “freedoms” and “our way of life?”
Well, yes – except that at that time our “freedoms” and way of life included:
• Racial segregation and unequal treatment in schools, restaurants, water fountains, movie theatres, stores, the United States armed forces and the national government
• Pro-fascist support of Adolph Hitler, led by celebrities like Father Coughlin and the aviator hero Charles Lindbergh
• Limits on European immigration based on the current beliefs about which “races” were inferior
• Discrimination against all women – without regard to color or nationality – that largely prevented them from jobs that included supervision of men; that meant women were paid less than men for the same job, and that prevented women from participating in most sports.
The World War II example illustrates why, as an American and a historian, I find the simple view of Veterans Day troublesome. It’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. To care for our country and know what’s needed to protect ourselves, we must understand some of the nuances and complexities of the past. Otherwise, we are whistling in the dark as we go by danger. History learned in its complexities, with its nuances and contradictions, is the price of freedom.