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Veterans Day

November 11, 2006

Veterans Day sales, speeches, salutes. The November 11 holiday carved out of World War I's Armistice Day has become a hollow cliche, a platform for politicians to wax patriotic far from any battlefield. Wouldn't it be grand if politicians spent the day listening to veterans.

"They're no good, these wars," Roy Longmere, an Australian veteran of the Gallipoli campaign who miraculously lived to be 107, once said in memory of 60,000 countrymen killed in World War I. "A lot of lives lost, no use at all. There's got to be another way of fixing up these rows without killing each other."

"There wouldn't have been a war if it had been left to the public," said Bertie Felstead, who lived to be 106, the last surviving member of a British battalion in WWI that struck a spontaneous truce with Germans on Christmas Day 1915. When fighting resumed, it lasted nearly three more years and killed millions of people until an armistice was signed.

Fast forward to 2006.

“Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes,” Kevin Tillman said shortly before Veterans Day of the death of his brother, Pat Tillman, in April 2004 while they were on a US Army Ranger mission in Afghanistan that went horribly wrong. The Tillman brothers previously served together in Iraq after volunteering in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground. Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started,” Kevin Tillman said in a bitter tribute to his brother’s death widely posted on the Internet.

The Army initially claimed that Pat Tillman, who left a professional football career to serve in the War on Terrorism, died heroically fighting the enemy. It was later revealed that he was killed by fellow Rangers in a murky incident that is now the subject of a criminal investigation.

Many veterans I know have bitter memories of war that are seldom acknowledged in official pronouncements on Veterans Day. They tell anybody willing to listen. At a forum on art by Vietnam veterans three years ago at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and Vietnam Era Educational Center, it was hard to tell where the war ended and the art began.

"Our family sustained six continuous years of incredible fear and threats of death," photographer Tony Velez wrote in a statement about his exhibit that interspersed snapshots of GI's in Vietnam with head-snapping scenes of an antiwar march by Vietnam veterans. Velez and a brother served back-to-back tours in the war, another brother was drafted, a cousin was killed, another lost an arm, and haunting memories of dead GI's and Vietnamese came home with him and refused to go away.

"Images of my experience in the war can still provoke a deep rage within me of the injustices, lies, the horrors and terrors of war, as well as nightmares, a sense of guilt, loss and sadness," Velez, a professor of fine arts at Kean University, wrote.

An exhibit assembled by artist Frank Romeo presented a gallery of veterans' nightmares: skulls in the place of soldiers' faces, a grim reaper Death posing with an arm around a spit-and-polish general, a trussed-up enemy prisoner who looked like an African-American.

"My paintings are of the horror show that was Vietnam: butchery carried out for politicians, bureaucrats, and ambitious generals whose egos would not let them say "enough"; art for an indifferent public; art to honor those who lived and died there, and earned only a few hundred dollars a month. It would take a lifetime to paint it all," said a statement by Charlie Shobe, whose painting, "Waiting for Henry Kissinger," showed a grinning dead GI sitting under a tree.

Charles H. Johnson read a poem on an unforgettable experience as an infantry platoon leader. In the midst of a monsoon, he had to pull guard duty:

So I trudge through the muck,
each step sucked deeper into the stuff
until (madly trying to free myself)
I trip and fall face first.

Not only must I fight in a cesspool.
Now I have become part of it.

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.