The Fourth of July weekend celebrates community, local as well as national. Parades featuring people in uniform - scouts, firefighters and police as well as the military – traditionally are a fixture. Military uniforms remind us of the role of war in our history – and present. The current Veterans Administration scandals remind us of how serious related problems can become.
From ancient times, parades are vital to the reintegration of warriors into society. War is profoundly disruptive and disturbing as well as dangerous. Even the rare man who finds combat invigorating and rewarding is in severe need of an honoring welcome after the killing ends.
Homer, chronicler of the Trojan War, is extremely sensitive to this. The great classic is presented in two parts. ‘The Iliad’ focuses on the fighting and related interchange between Greeks and Trojans; ‘The Odyssey’ describes the very long voyage home of Greek leader Ulysses and his men. They traverse allegorical geography, struggling to put the horrors of killing, and the dangers of being killed, behind them.
General George S. Patton Jr., a very great American combat leader, was extremely mindful of this dimension. He and Gen. James Doolittle, who led the first air raid on Tokyo, were featured in a special ceremony in the Los Angeles Coliseum after the surrender of Nazi Germany.
Patton celebrated the accomplishments of our U.S. Third Army in the victorious drive across Europe. In honoring his troops, he stressed in particular the 40,000 who lost their lives in that final year of the war. Patton made such statements regularly in the few months remaining until his own death.
Such confirmation is particularly important for warriors representing modern democracies. Our egalitarian ethos and efforts to abide by the rule of law contrast starkly with the traditional martial spirit.
In the Second World War, Allied troops were often welcomed warmly by peoples liberated from Axis occupation. Understandably, our media gave special emphasis to this dimension. The Korean War created very strong bonds between the U.S. and the people as well as very effective military of South Korea. The first Gulf War liberated an oppressed population.
The Vietnam War was distinctively different. During that long divisive conflict, military personnel were often discouraged from discussing the subject with civilians. Opposition to the war became hostility to our own military. There was no collective welcome home. Many vets of that war have suffered without a Ulysses, troubled – and sometimes troublesome.
President Richard Nixon abolished the military draft, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have involved relatively smaller forces, but those serving have still confronted great challenges. Constant rotation back into the theatres has created intense personal pressures. Enormous psychological strains have been added to physical dangers, and families suffer heavily. Too often, military personnel needs have been sacrificed to domestic political considerations.
This July 4 weekend is not best suited to specific foreign policy discussion but is particularly appropriate for recognizing and honoring veterans, individually as well as collectively, wherever and whenever you find them.
Please also encourage them to run for public office. We won the Cold War in part because members of Tom Brokaw’s ‘Greatest Generation’ who served in the military also served in government. Every U.S. President from Harry Truman through George H.W. .H.HHBush was a veteran.
What Washington needs above all is the sort of sensible realism such men and women often bring to policy.
Essayist and Lake Effect foreign policy contributor Art Cyr is the director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor of Political Economy and World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.