My Turn: In service to peace

For the Monitor
Saturday, November 11, 2017

Each year, in preparation for a Veterans Day program, the newsletter of my community asks that all veterans confirm the community’s record of their branch of service and “war time service location.”

Upon reading this year’s request, it occurred to me that “war time” has become normal time. At least since the Vietnam era the United States has been involved in perpetual war fought in one country or another against a diversity of “terrorists” and their supporters. This brave new world is rife with fear, suspicion and hegemony.

Since the end of World War I, United States international policy has been split into two opposing movements. The first movement embraces nonviolence, negotiation and amenable resolutions as instruments of peace. It was launched with the U.S. Senate ratification of the international Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact, signed by President Calvin Coolidge on Jan. 17, 1929. The pact reads in part that the signers “condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.” It also adds that the parties agree “that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific means.”

The primary instrument of the second movement is military power. Its mantra is “peace through strength” backed by superior weapons and a warrior class. This movement is sustained by a professionalized military and by words such as those sung in our national anthem, “rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air . . . Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us as a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just . . .” This movement has reached a pinnacle of coercive power in the bluster of implied threats from President Trump toward North Korea and Iran.

The primacy of U.S. military power to settle disputes has been perpetuated with the deployment of military units in more than 50 countries. U.S. citizens and sometimes members of Congress are unaware of military activity in some of these countries.

For example, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Chuck Schumer say they did not know there were 1,000 U.S. troops in Niger. Their presence came to public attention with the notification of the deaths of four soldiers who were among a 12-member Army Special Forces unit accompanying Nigerien forces near the village of Tongo Tongo on Oct. 3. It seems the United States has become a warrior nation.

It is apparent that the arc of the pendulum has swung from its peak amplitude of Armistice Day and the “pacific means” movement of the late 1920s to the opposite peak of the early 21st-century movement of “warriors” as the salvation of the nation. Armistice Day has been co-opted by Veterans Day, conceived to celebrate and honor men and women warriors who are put into harm’s way with the tools of war to solve international conflicts.

However, the focus of Veterans Day can be redirected. It may be the time to support military veterans with the acknowledgement that it has been a great tragedy to entice these women and men into participating in military solutions when there are other ways to make international friends, become good neighbors and offer transforming love to enemies. It may be the time to offer our apology for luring them into experiences of maiming, death and a lifetime of dreadful memories. It may become a day to pledge a “welcome home,” care for their wounds and commit to a policy that condemns a normal recourse to war.

A step toward the transformation of the Veterans Day celebration is to include the many thousands of civilian veterans who have volunteered to go into harm’s way without weapons of destruction.

Veterans who have marched for civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, rights of LGBTQ people: Thank you for your service.

Veterans who have served as firefighters, medics, miners, social workers: Thank you for your service.

Veterans who have served with Doctors Without Borders, as aid workers with Syrian and Myanmar Muslim refugees, as workers with the Red Cross and Red Crescent: Thank you for your service.

Veterans who have served in the Press Corps, for the World Council of Churches, in the Peace Corps, and as state department workers in embassies and consulates: Thank you for your service.

Veteran volunteers who have searched, rescued and rebuilt after earthquakes, landslides, fires, floods: Thank you for your service.

Thank you, all who have nonviolently sacrificed and sometimes risked your lives to advance the swing toward good neighbors, peace and reconciliation. You are riding the wave of a movement toward a future humanity where coercive violence will be unacceptable among people and among nations.

As John F. Kennedy said, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” It is a brave new paradigm, yet unnoticed by many. It transforms the nature of human beings. Thank you for leading the way.

(John Buttrick lives in Concord.)