I’m a “vet”. I did 16 years in the Army. I did it until it stopped being fun. Because I am also a disable vet, I can say I’m retired; because at this point I’m not allowed to go back (it’s arcane, but suffice it to say that were I not disable, I’d be allowed to re-enlist, and finish my career, since I can’t; and I’m being compensated for the pension I can’t earn, am retired, but I digress).
My grandfather was in WW1. I’ve always been ambivalent about the idea of, “veterans’ day”. First , we already have one, Memorial Day started out as a way to remember those who served in the Civil War, in the same was Armistice Day was designed to recall WW1. Given how WW1 changed the way we look at war (see, “The Soldier’s Tale, bearing witness to modern war“) I think keeping it, as a touchstone of the cost war brings to the world is important. That so much of Europe also keeps this day, for that, adds to my ambivalence. It feels we are appropriating a larger idea to our own, somewhat jingoistic ends.
But New York City has a parade. I like parades. I like soldiers (and Marines, and Seamen and Airmen). I belong to the Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans of America. They were going to march. So I went. I woke up, checked the weather; double checked it by stepping outside in my pajamas. It was warm enough, and so I donned my US Army Kilt, and a beret, and went to join my fellows.
I don’t know quite what I was expecting. I’m not sure that what I got wasn’t sort of just that. I’ve been in a lot of parades. Most of them of a moderately theatric sort. In 20 years of working a few renaissance faires in Calif. I’ve been in, at a conservative estimate, about 450 parades. They were semi-raucous. Crowds close it, music, drums, shouting, a sense of intimate distance. I’ve also been to the Rose Parade, much the same. I’ve also been in military parades, with the bands, and the reviewing stand and the “pass in review”, “Eyes… RIGHT!,” etc.
This was not like any of that. The Forming Up was familiar. The waiting, for one’s time to step-off was just as it ever is, and has been since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. We left the FlatIron Building, to go and wait; where we had a good thirty minutes, more to “hurry up and wait”, just as one would expect. I went into the coffee bar to get another latte, and croissant. Ed Vick, one the founders of the IAVA, a Navy Vet from VietNam, came in, and we chatted some. He also picked up the round for all the vets who were in line. Some were still in the service; some were having beer, or wine (it was a coffee bar :>), and could see that a couple were drinking to cope. Nine years ago I probably would have done the same.
Then we formed up, and waited some more, and then they waved us out, onto 5th Avenue, and it all changed. The street is wide. There were, all in all, tens of thousands of people on the route, but that’s not a very dense crowd, when one remembers the parade went from 27th to 59th streets. It felt distant. There was no press of noise, no sense of exultant humanity. We were a small bubble, in a quiet sea. We walked, and we waited, about every two blocks, to let traffic pass through. We stepped out to shake hands; I made a point of doing it when I saw some one with a Korean War hat, because they are so often forgotten; what with the massive awareness of Vietnam.
I didn’t feel let down, but neither did I feel uplifted; which is usually what the most banal of parades does for me; no matter how tired I am, nor how routine it may be (450 is a lot of parades). But two hours is also a lot of time to think, esp. when one is marching along; even at route step. The IAVA is a time-limited group. Sooner or later (sooner, one hopes) there will be no more people eligible to join. Then we, as Eric Bogle sang,we’ll see, “Year after, the numbers get fewer, someday no one will march there at all“.
The parade, however, isn’t likely to stop. My thoughts on the day will probably stay much as they are, and I’m not the only one to be ambivalent about the sentiments of “Veterans’ Day”, not by a long shot. When people thank me, I’m not always that comfortable with it. No offense, I didn’t enlist for anyone else but myself. I did it for my reasons. I stayed in for my reasons and, much as I may be wiling to share the broad strokes, if you weren’t there I am not capable of making it plain. Being in the service (no matter which, nor for what country) changes one. Go to war changes everyone who does it. None of us come back the same. As a vet, part of my lack of sentimentality comes from the feeling the day, and those who take part, are props in a cynical narrative. I was snuck back into the country in the dead of night when I was medevacced to Walter Reed. The coffins of the dead were done the same. When election season comes around we are mentioned as if serving somehow makes us ideologues, and saying, “the other side” doesn’t “respect our sacrifice, is meaningful.
I’m an individual, not a member of some lumpen mass of thoughtless automata. If you respect me, trust me to look at deeds, not words.
Because the Parades, the ebullience, is put out, front and center. While those who aren’t able to march in the parades, the homeless, the struggling, those more disabled then I, who live too far from LA, or Seattle, or DC, or New York, or some other city with a parade are left to look at the news to get any sense of national remembrance. If they can manage that.
Bitter? A little. It’s not so much that we have to look after each other, because the gov’t doesn’t, even though we got told how important our sacrifices are (and make no mistake, even in “peacetime service” there’s a shitload of sacrifice). It’s that we get waved about like a bloody shirt, and then the budget needs balancing and we get hung out to dry. Used, three times, and fucked over in all of them (once when we serve, once when we are used as props to show how “patriotic” those pols are, and once to make it possible to afford other things).
And I’m going to march in the parade again. Because it’s not all about me. Some of my fellows need to see that we are here. To be reminded that the things we did, war or peace, mattered. The Pols need to be reminded that we are here, and by God we will resist being forgotten. And the people who line the route… they need it most of all. They want to show us, for whatever reason, that they remember. We need to remember them too, as we need to remind them of just how much we owe each other; and a little bit of joy, that sense of being part of a larger community, of paying them the courtesy to acknowledge he sacrifice they are making to stand outside on a blustery morning, when they could be home in bed, or eating brunch at the restaurant down the street with the great eggs benedict, or playing games with their grandkids; but which they put off, to say, in a way that isn’t making me feel awkward, and uncomfortable; to be able to accept that I didn’t do it all for me, and while that doesn’t make me a hero, it’s something I should admit, and come to terms with.