Thoughts on Veterans Day

By | November 10, 2011 | 0 Comments


I have seen much war in my life, and I detest it profoundly. But there are worse things than war, and they all come with defeat.
− Ernest Hemingway

See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
− Isaiah 48:10

November 11 is Veterans Day. Some cities have parades or other ceremonies to honor those who have served their country in uniform, often at the risk of their lives. Other cities ignore the day and its deep meaning. Of course, it is difficult to appreciate the deep meaning of anything if we ourselves are shallow.
Some time ago, I accompanied my wife to San Diego for a convention of psychologists. By chance, the hotel where the convention was being held was also the site of another meeting. As we left the hotel with two of my wife’s colleagues to go out for dinner, the lobby was filled with Marines. Most were in dress blues, while senior officers were in the even fancier evening dress.
I stopped a major and asked what the occasion was. He replied, “It’s the Marine Corps Birthday.” I asked, “Isn’t that November 10?” He explained, “Yes, but sometimes that doesn’t fit in with our schedule.” I wondered whether what was on their schedule was a training exercise or a deployment to the Middle East.
Traditions and symbols are important. They inspire us to carry on when it is easier, or safer, to quit. The Marines arriving for that function were living examples of this truth. We are doing our best to erase traditions and symbols from civilian life, but they remain strong in our military.
When we returned from dinner, the Marines’ function had broken up. A group of officers and senior noncommissioned officers were there – typically, in the bar. One large man had the impressive sleeve insignia of three chevrons, four rockers and a flaming bomb.
As we waited for an elevator, we were joined by three junior Marine enlisted men. I asked a corporal whether the insignia I had seen was for a sergeant major or a master gunnery sergeant. Being many years older than when I was in the Army Reserve, I wasn’t current on Marine insignia. The young man replied that the person I described was, in fact, “master guns.”
My wife then pointed to his brief row of medals and asked what they represented. I recognized the Good Conduct Medal – a colleague of mine had one − and I think the Iraq Campaign Medal. But the young man modestly replied, “They tell a story.” Indeed they do, but only to those willing to listen. And that excludes a great many people today.
The next day we went on a cruise of San Diego Bay. We struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man in civilian clothes. He was busy photographing the ships in port, including two nuclear carriers, the Nimitz and the Ronald Reagan. I assumed he was a tourist, but he turned out to be Navy chief petty officer. I mentioned the Marine function we had blundered into, and he replied, “I take care of Marines.” I assumed he was a hospital corpsman, and this proved to be correct as he described a trauma course he had recently attended.
My wife, ever the psychologist, mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder, expecting the man to talk about patients he had treated. Instead he replied, “Yes, a lot of us have it.” I gathered he had spent time in Iraq or Afghanistan, but didn’t feel I should pursue the matter. But then the man added, “I want to go back, if they let me.” That really said it all.
Oh, I forgot to mention something, because it seemed entirely unremarkable at the time. The three men we spoke to by chance were white, African American and Filipino American. We all talk about equal opportunity, but our military actually puts it into effect.
Now we are back in Los Angeles, where people in uniform are much rarer than in San Diego, where master gunnery sergeants are not found in hotel lobbies, and where a man who devotes his life to “taking care of Marines” is not someone you are likely to encounter by chance. But you know what? We’ve lived in Los Angeles for years. Our work and our friends are here. But somehow, I felt more at home during those four days in San Diego than I have in years here in L.A.
Why? I’ll tell you why. Many of the things I see and hear, and many of the people I meet, are shallow. Think about it:
● Popular music doesn’t conclude. Much of it merely fades out, as if the composer can’t figure out how to end it, and simply turns down the volume. Frank Sinatra singing “I Did It My Way” came to an end. Johnny Cash singing “I Walk the Line” came to an end. I can’t picture them just fading away. They weren’t the just-fade-away type.
● Many young people don’t date; they just “hook up.” Their friendships, their affairs, even their marriages (if any) don’t end in breakups, but just fade away. The relationships don’t end with emotion, even negative emotion. They just diminish gradually until nothing is left.
● Many people regard national and international events the same way they live their personal lives – with little real feeling. They may or may not vote, but they don’t really care who wins. They may or may not approve of our war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they don’t really care who wins.
● Many people would return a blank stare if you mentioned the names of Paul Smith, Jason Dunham, Michael Murphy, Michael Monsoor, Jared Monti, Robert Miller, Salvatore Giunta, Leroy Petry, and Ross McGinnis, as well as our allies Johnson Beharry, Bryan Budd, Benjamin Roberts-Smith, or Mark Donaldson. Granted, it’s not entirely these people’s fault. Our media give front-page coverage to alleged abuses by our troops, but underplay or ignore completely their sacrifices and their heroism. Still, citizens have a responsibility to inform themselves. They can use the Internet as well as I can.
And all of us can watch the end of the Donaldson video and see how distinguished service should be honored.
But shallow people have shallow opinions that could fit on a bumper sticker: “War is not the answer.” No, not if the question is, “What’s for lunch?” But it is the answer if terrorists make war on us. Or “Arms are for hugging.” No, not if criminals are kicking down your door at 2 a.m. Bumper stickers can’t save us from mortal danger.
These shallow people abandon their spouses if the going gets rough. They abandon a friend at work if they sense that he has fallen out of favor with the boss. They would never risk their lives repeatedly for their friends. Such people are too shallow for deep commitments. To them, your honor is a title for judges, not a guide to live by.
So perhaps you will understand if sometimes I tire of shallow people with their shallow opinions, their shallow relationships, and their shallow loyalties. Sometimes I yearn for serious people with deep loyalties. Sometimes I despair of finding such people. But sometimes I am really lucky, and I meet them in hotel lobbies and on harbor cruises. These are the people to whom we owe our freedom. These are the people I think about on Veterans Day.
Author’s Note: To send a Care package to our troops overseas, please go to http://www.operationgratitude.com/

A prior version of this column appeared Nov. 10, 2010. Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.
www.stolinsky.com

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