(CW: mental illness, war, suicide)
There’s been a lot of talk within the American left about whether or not it’s appropriate, tasteful, or even ethical to recognize and celebrate our veterans. Younger leftists without historical context may not realize that we began having these conversations several decades ago, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This was the first televised war. Obviously war has never been popular or well-loved by the masses–most of us don’t care for it much–but most civilians prior to Vietnam had the fortune of never seeing what war looks like. Following the Vietnam War, the American activists fortunate enough to have stayed home decried the incoming veterans as “baby killers”; they were now answering for the sins of the American military industrial complex.
Regretfully not much has changed since then. My generation has been typified by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. 9/11 assumed a catalyst role to invading the Middle East for the second time and by a second Bush. In 2007, at age 15, I had the great privilege of walking alongside both anarchists and Iraq war veterans in protest of both wars.
Later that year, Kurt Vonnegut died.
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, fiction but with both sci-fi-ish and memoir-ish undertones, described the case of Billy Pilgrim: a young man who was “unstuck in time” following being held POW (prisoner of war) in World War II and surviving the Bombing of Dresden. After that, Billy was able to move through life without any synchronicity at all. Sometimes he’d see his own birth and sometimes he’d see his own death. Sometimes he was back in Dresden. At one point, Billy gets abducted by a scrappy species of alien called the Tralfamadorians, who attempt to breed him with an adult actress named Montana Wildhack.
Vonnegut’s son Mark Vonnegut, a medical doctor and himself schizophrenic, speculated that his father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. This isn’t a very surprising or unrealistic speculation, and it’s common and reasonable to interpret that Billy Pilgrim’s unstuck-ness were flashbacks. In between probable PTSD and a predisposition to mental illness, the elder Vonnegut’s postwar years (although successful and celebrated) were difficult. In 1984, he attempted suicide, which his mother died from on Mother’s Day forty years earlier. Years later, Vonnegut praised suicide: “my mother solved so many problems with it”.
Evident in his later writings Timequake and A Man Without a Country, as well as interviews he gave for radio and television, Vonnegut was extremely dissatisfied with the state of American politics and affairs towards the end of his life. He was a socialist in the vein of Eugene Debs and a lifelong pacifist, describing himself in his war years as a child. He recognized that the US was becoming ever fragmented: a sentiment that would only get more accurate in the years after his death. He bemoaned to interviewers that he ought to sue Philip Morris for not killing him with cigarettes, because he smoked packs a day for over seventy years and was inexplicably still alive. When Vonnegut finally passed away at age 84, after sustaining a fall in his home, death liberated him from an obvious, chronic, and yet growing disdain for the system he served.
Vonnegut’s generation of veterans was celebrated upon their return home. They had made the ultimate sacrifice and done a great thing by liberating Europe from Hitler’s clutches, and protecting the US from the Axis. Since WWII, the American war machine has attempted with each foreign invasion to recapture those glory days, and each attempt has been unsuccessful. The narrative that our big military exists to protect ourselves and everyone else from freedom-hating despots is outdated and I doubt there’s a single leftist who believes in it anymore.
Vonnegut sure didn’t. There’s a reason he celebrated Armistice Day and not Veteran’s Day.
Although Vonnegut and his brothers-in-arms were celebrated, they wouldn’t have been had they returned from Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Antiwar activists would have decried them as evil. The ironic part of this is that I personally–and I realize this is anecdote, and because I tend to keep friends who are politically similar to me–know very few veterans who are pro-war. Most of the veterans I know are staunch leftists, unsupportive of military intervention. They found themselves pursuing the armed forces as an attractive solution to whatever problem American capitalism created for them, like lack of education or healthcare or jobs.
Most veterans I know are like Kurt Vonnegut: left-leaning, antiwar, and hypercritical of the American military industrial complex. I am friends with many. I was raised by one.
I recognize Veteran’s Day not because I support war in any capacity. War is an unethical, immoral byproduct of our continued status as animals. It is embarrassing that human beings have not evolved past the need to kill each other in large numbers. But this isn’t the fault of our veterans! We live in a country that suffocates all but its most privileged citizens, drowning everyone inside it with debt for the most basic human necessities, and then makes participating in war an attractive out.
Recruiters will tell you that they are more successful at their jobs whenever others in their community don’t have a job to begin with. This is by design. I have heard other leftists say that each veteran had a choice, and they chose to go overseas and kill brown people. What choice is there, really, when we are inundated with constant propaganda about service and fortitude and protecting freedom, and simultaneously prevented from making a living?
Therefore, as a leftist, I recognize Veteran’s Day not because I believe that our veterans are these heroes who have gone out and made the ultimate sacrifice to keep us free here (or whatever my daughter is currently learning at school today). I hold solidarity with veterans as fellow survivors of American imperialism. Anyone who has met a veteran can tell you that there is no greater friend to peace than someone who has seen war. It is not our veterans who wish to go out and mercilessly kill lots of faceless brown people overseas, but the masters that control them, you, and me alike.
And happy 100th birthday to Kurt Vonnegut.
Someday the US will make you proud.