Why we need to remember our veterans in our politics

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo by Mario Roverto Durán Ortiz.

Just this week it was Veterans Day. As we remember those who have served, it is from time to time worth asking how we should remember them, and what it means to remember them well. The South is a place that keeps the military close to its heart. It hardly needs saying or justifying anymore; you don’t travel anywhere in the US and find the same density of military iconography. Most famous of all are those “Support Our Troops” ribbons, which you can find anywhere in the country but which have always been in fullest bloom on bumpers south of the Virginia border.

There is so much sympathy for the military here that it sometimes feels frivolous. Those stickers have always seemed to me a little performative, a little too easily paired with NFL halftime banner-waving: Both seem intended more to shape our impression of the speaker than to change the way we treat soldiers and veterans. It’s a version of the same accusation leveled at social media “slacktivists,” who publically latch on to meaningful topics in order to do themselves good in the public eye. Even when their contributions are sincere, I wonder whether a gesture can really stand in, or should even try to stand in, for the real, hard work it indicates.

So it is with these bumper stickers. So it is, indeed, with much of this military iconography. After all, really supporting our troops—supporting our veterans—is hard work, and we are falling short together. The measures of our failure are familiar: The suicide rate among veterans (well above the national average), the 50,000 veterans who don’t have a home to sleep in each night (veterans comprise about 12 percent of the homeless population but only 6 percent or 7 percent of the overall population), the particular burden that falls on veterans of color (who represent 40 percent of homeless veterans but only 14 percent of veterans generally). At this point, we are collectively aware that we have also sent American soldiers needlessly to their deaths in Iraq and elsewhere. These are large, almost ungraspable, problems. They are problems we have to solve politically, that is, by working together in common spaces. They are problems it is the job of any good government to solve. The gravity of the challenges veterans face in America makes the “Support Our Troops” stickers feel so hollow sometimes—what makes it possible to read them so uncharitably.

But we should be charitable. Those stickers and the military paraphernalia we see down South are often acts of memory—memory of loved ones gone, of loved ones who served—profoundly in the spirit of the holiday and of profound personal meaning. If they are sometimes vacuous, they are also sometimes the outward symbols of immense private grief or pride. Yet it takes nothing away from these means of memory, from these deep private sentiments themselves, to look at the state of our veterans and ask whether there are other kinds of memory missing. We clearly need more than private memory, and more than public ceremonies.

What we need is for this kind of memory to be present in political spaces. Other memories have a political presence—now, most notably, the memory of September 11th, which still compels political decisions about security and foreign engagement. If we were to take the memory of veterans, the memory of the dead seriously, it would restrain on our present willingness to spend the lives of those who serve and remind us of the virtue of peace. It would lay bare the political hypocrisy of claiming to support our troops while denying them healthcare, housing, and employment as soon as they are discharged. And it might trim the fascism that seems to lurk behind our present ostentatious militarism by insisting on an honest, collective, and public accounting of the toll war takes.

It is hard to know how to create this kind of political, rather than merely public, remembrance. I think of the Bonus Army, met with gunfire in Washington; I think of the Cenotaph in London, which began as a popular, almost unspoken memorial to the dead and veterans of the First World War, before emerging as the site of political remembrance; I think of my mother’s stories of Paris in the 1970s, when the Metro still bore signs reserving seats for handicapped veterans of that same war. I do not know what the analog might be here, in the American South, where it is easy to remember the military—but perhaps not yet to remember it well.