A Veteran’s Lament

Published 11:16 am Friday, November 10, 2017

This veteran’s day one sad, poignant, and even tragic figure looms over its celebration, that of Senator John McCain. While castigated by the current draft-dodging commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump, as “not my kind of hero,” he assuredly is to me and perhaps to millions of other veterans and Americans as well. Now in the twilight of his long and honorable public service and military career, McCain, suffering from a terminal brain tumor, likely will never see another veteran’s day. Nor will twenty-two other of our comrades who kill themselves today, one perhaps in the time it takes to read this. This is an elegy to John McCain and to the American ideals he personifies.

All my grandchildren have been born since 2001, and, for them, the lines and limits between peace and war forever have blurred. What is warfare today? Certainly it’s not like World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or Desert Storm. Now we make war on nouns like terror and drugs, on shadowy cartels and terrorist organizations that only proliferate as we attack them. Then, too, who’s an enemy combatant these days, a faceless Russian hacker in St. Petersburg, an obscure Al-Qaida underling in Yemen, or some rag-tag bandits in Niger? In our homes, churches, theaters, and daily activities, we’re likely less safe than we have been in decades, more vulnerable to cyber and terrorist attacks, identity theft, hacking, biological warfare, and drugs, all too often by fellow Americans.  Where is safe anymore? One of my granddauåghters has trouble sleeping at night, the specter of a mushroom-shaped cloud haunting her thoughts.

Like John McCain, I worry that this continuous warfare undermines our most basic values and institutions, those liberties and freedoms we hold most dear. Is it legal and ethical for Presidents Obama and Trump to sit down at breakfast every “Terror Tuesday” and decide a secret drone kill list that includes Americans or innocent civilians? Do we really endorse “enhanced interrogation techniques,” aka torture? What about due process?  Or the Geneva or other international conventions we deliberately ignore? Are they just “quaint” and “obsolete” documents to be discarded if inconvenient like our Constitution seems to be? 

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Still, my greatest lament is that of McCain’s, the pervasive, seemingly intractable political and social polarization that has divided this nation more than any time since slavery. McCain vainly pleads for bipartisanship on the issues that define us as a society, those of health care, inequality, immigration, and our democratic processes like elections, all to no avail. This might be the hallmark of our generation.

Laura Ingraham, a well-known talk-show hostess and Fox news commentator, famously observed that a great many conservatives “really don’t like the American people-not very much at least.” The same could be said for the liberal left. Indeed, Americans seem to hate each other more than ever, killing each other at record numbers far greater than those of Islamist terrorists, a slaughter that seems as endless as our warfare. Do we naively think we can blow up children in Syria without harming our own in Sandy Hook or elsewhere? 

Lastly, that toxic partisanship also has confused our concepts of patriotism and loyalty, certainly not the monopoly of any party even if politically co-opted. Today we cannot even bury fallen heroes or watch a football game without a political imbroglio occurring. Indeed, the rise of nativism, illegal immigration, and the infusion of racism into an increasingly polarized society has only made patriotism seem a redder, whiter, and bluer affair. Here in Tryon or elsewhere, you likely won’t see many blacks, Hispanics, or the young participating in patriotic celebrations like veteran’s day. 

As we have narrowed our concept of what it means to be an American, we also might have made patriotism more exclusive as well. The “birther” controversy, travel ban, “the wall,” and the anti-immigration frenzy really is about that restricted idea of American-ness. Yet in so doing, we also have promoted the decline of patriotism and the love of country for the many even as we enhance and enlarge it for the few who will passionately celebrate this veteran’s day as we all should.       

Milton Ready, Tryon, N.C.