Arguably honoring is not the same thing as studying. Without question, much participation in the military has involved bravery and much has involved cowardice. A very strong case can be made that militarism has not been a “service” in the sense of serving any useful purpose or benefiting people rather than endangering, killing, traumatizing, and impoverishing them. Indisputably, millions have not “decided” to “serve” at all but have been compelled to participate, and millions more have “chosen” to sign up principally for lack of any better source of income. Of all the veterans I’ve spoken with, those pro- and anti-war, not a one that I recall has ever mentioned the taking of an oath as a major part of the experience of war. The heartwarming stories of a woman sneaking into the military and a soldier saving lives in Vietnam can’t erase the larger story of soldiers having killed millions of people in Vietnam and tens of millions more all over the globe. Do people really “fall” in a “sacrifice,” or are they slaughtered in a stupid heartless machine? Do they “transition” to civilian life, or do they crash into an agonizing obstacle course of injury, guilt, PTSD, and culture shock? Are veterans more often disturbed by apocryphal tales of being spat on, or by naive gratitude for having committed moral atrocities?
A war museum that is also openly a war memorial constructed by a war-making society that has normalized permawar is not going to answer those questions. But they’ve long since been answered by poor people’s museums, also known as books, and there’s a new one of those just out that I’d put up against the toxic offerings of this new museum. The book is Guys Like Me by Michael A. Messner.
Messner explains his perspective with an account of a conversation with his grandfather, a World War I veteran:
“On the morning of Veterans Day in 1980, Gramps sat with his breakfast—a cup of watery coffee, a piece of burnt toast slathered with marmalade, and a single slice of cool liverwurst. A twenty-eight-year-old graduate student, I’d recently moved in with my grandparents in their Oakland, California, home. I tried to cut through Gramps’s cranky mood by wishing him a happy Veterans Day. Huge Mistake. ‘Veterans Day!’ he barked at me with the gravelly voice of a lifelong smoker. ‘It’s not Veterans Day! It’s Armistice Day. Those gawd . . . damned . . . politicians . . . changed it to Veterans Day. And they keep getting us into more wars.’ My grandfather was hyperventilating now, his liverwurst forgotten. ‘Buncha crooks! They don’t fight the wars, ya know. Guys like me fight the wars. We called it the “War to End All Wars,” and we believed it.’ He closed the conversation with a harrumph: ‘Veterans Day!’