What does it mean to honor the troops? Theological considerations when war is assumed.

USAA, "The Official Military Appreciation Sponsor of the NFL" - Not joking.
USAA, “The Official Military Appreciation Sponsor of the NFL” – Not joking.

It is with difficulty that I confront Veteran’s Day each year.  Mostly, I enter the day conflicted, being a “veteran” myself.  I am troubled by the simple yet difficult question that Katie Grimes summarized well earlier today, “how do we celebrate Veteran’s Day in a country that fights unjust wars?”

During my time as an officer in the USAF, I remember getting “thanked” one time in particular, because it was rather unsettling.  A few friends and I–all in uniform–had just finished lunch at a local restaurant, and were walking back to our cars, when an older woman came up to us and said,

“Boys, I want to thank you so much for what you do everyday!”

This wasn’t Veteran’s Day or anything, just a random day of the year, in a city where seeing people in uniform was quite common (there are several military bases in and around San Antonio, TX, where I served).  So, as we would, we smiled, said thank you, and continued walking back to our cars.

Excuse me!”  the woman shouted after us, “Excuse me!  I mean it!  I’m very thankful for what you do!”

Umm…we all just sort of stood there, camo-wearing young officers that we were.  God only knew the life history of the person in front of us who just said this.

We replied, scattered, “Sure!  Of course, yes, well, you’re very welcome!”

She sternly glared, unsatisfied at our answers, and walked off. 

The image of the glaring but thankful woman has always stayed with me.  She exemplifies a confused and frustrated sense of thankfulness which is frequently cast aside by NFL-produced commercials and beer-company-infused notions to “thank the veterans.”  Whatever moved this woman to recognize her plea allowed me to enter more clearly into the acutely personal sense of Veteran’s Day.

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If Veteran’s Day started as a celebration of the “war to end all wars,” it has transformed into something of a day of recognition and honor.  Despite the recent incorporation and over-politicization of Veteran’s Day by political-commercial factions like USAA and NFL, it remains, for many personally connected to the military, a day of remembrance and often prayer.  Prayers that the cause so many fight for is just, when God knows it often is not.  Prayers that those who wield weapons honor the depth of destruction they can sow.  Prayers that the next war may be the last.

The fancy commercials, yellow ribbons, and millions of dollars spent by companies enriching their public image to “honor” veterans is an insult to the soldier who has quite literally laid her life on the line for the sake of another.  The soldier may have been wrong.  The soldier may have misunderstood America as Christianity based on years of indoctrination.  The soldier had been taught how to fire weapons and kill or be killed. There are innocent people to save, the soldier believes, and some violence is necessary to save them.

Theologically, a tribute of Veteran’s Day must recognize the simple faith of the foxhole and tend to those oppressed on all levels, including the soldier: 

For example (a short list):
The enduring stigma of receiving psychological help in the military;
The insidious employment of politics which debase and often fuel the twisted idealized reasons of the soldier;
The shameless incorporation of Christianity alongside “righteous causes” which degrade any sense of universal human dignity;
The unique derision of the female soldier, including a hyperactive form of rape culture which is only slowly being uncovered;
The continuation of hyper-violent tactics and weaponry that seek to create perfect soldiers and remove any personal sense of morality and conscience through repetitive training and subservience.

So how do we celebrate Veteran’s Day amidst unjust wars?

We act politically and pray strongly that all troops will come home soon.  All 170,000 of them who exemplify that latent threat of North American violence that could be employed around the globe at the drop of a hat.

At least, that’s what I pray for.  I’d pray for the politicians, but sometimes I just think they’re too far gone.

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