“He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds the nation to death.”

Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

“Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.”

Kurt Vonnegut

Another Veterans’ Day. I watched the Commander-in-Chief speechifying at Arlington about his “humbling” responsibilities as CinC. Yeah, right, you’d better be humble, because you have to do everything you can to get these kids to give up life and limb and justify their loss, while neither of your daughters will ever be in harm’s way.

That is the problem: too many poilitical leaders have no military experience. That doesn’t mean they have to be military strategy experts. Presumably the generals can handle that. They simply have not experienced the horrors of war first-hand, like the neocon hawks around Bush who must have creamed their pants to think THEY were going to make a war happen and kick some ass. A decade and trillions of dollars — and over 4,000 American lives — later, Iraq is still a chaotic mess. Better than a dictator, I suppose, but not by much. Some of the car bombs kill dozens. The stories are so common that they’re tucked away in the back of the paper. Some note that taking down Saddam helped Iran immensely.

And how about all the other dictatorships and tyrannies in the world, like North Korea? Do we pick only on weak, easy targets that have oil? That’s really herioc.

We have got to pass a law that sends the families of poilitical leaders into battle FIRST. Then maybe they’d think twice about what they’re sending young people into. The latest Harper’s Index says that the chance of a US service member commmitting suicide is one in five (one in 20 for the general population). Half are under 25.

But back to Arlington. I saw the complete fusion of military religion and deistic, Biblical religion, each a powerful force in its own right. They synergize each other. In both, there is rank, people dress up, behavior is mandated, authority never questioned, and those obedient enough to lay down their lives for a leader’s whim are heroes (secular war) or martyrs (religious war).

Obama stood in front of flags so HUGE (bigger is better) that you could see only the stripes. The Navy band and choir sang “God Bless America.” I prefer the secular “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” The speech ended by calling God’s blessing down thrice, on the veterans, the heroes, and the US of A.

The hero Obama dwelt upon was a young man who lost both legs, one arm, and one hand to an IED. Unselfishly, he waved off the medics lest they be hit by another device. Amazingly, modern medicine saved him, and modern prosthesis restored him. He would have been there, the Prez said, but he’d gone kayaking with his girlfriend. Reward the warrior class with pageantry, song, and ritual. They really get off on that.

Out of Afghanistan

Obama will, he says, get us out of Afghanistan in 2014. Until then, every death is a wasted young life, because the country (Graveyard of Empires, remember?) will be no better prepared to govern itself than it is today. When enemies dressed in Afghan police uniforms start gunning down Afghan and American soldiers, you sense that perhaps things are not moving in the right direction.

No pictures of coffins, corpses, or blood

Newspapers are aglow with flags, crisp uniforms, and smiling young faces of dedicated, young people brainwashed to believe that obedience to the government equals loyalty to the country. There are no pictures of coffins, military graveyards, body bags, or mangled and mutilated bodies in veterans’ hospitals. No tales of lives wrecked by alcoholism, divorce, depression or the myriad other mental disabilities caused by prolonged combat duty. No stats on the military budget ($500 billion, plus another trillion per year for the two wars alone) or its cost to each American family. An occasional reference to the costs of war DECADES after hostilities end (peak benefits for vets of WWI, 1914-18 was…1965), as the vets pass into old age, requiring ever more care.

No, there will be no such pictures, no such numbers, no talk whatsoever of the horror or meaninglessness of war, on this or any other Veterans’ Day.

Instead, there will be a lot of talk about duty, honor, and courage — tremendously powerful words that can be inflated to cover war’s ugliness and delude impressionable young people into believing that invading other countries, killing their citizens and perhaps even dying in the process…are worthy of praise and respect.

“Changed my life”

And we find the inevitable testimonials about how military service “changed my life.” No doubt it did. If you are a rebellious, arrogant, unfocused, unmotivated adolescent, the military will set you right. You will learn to make your bed, respect your elders, master complex tasks, follow through on commitments, take care of your fellow human beings — because if you don’t, the military will come down on you with crushing force and do what your parents, teachers, and religious institutions have failed to do.

But the military is not a social-services agency whose purpose is to set young lives aright and compensate for the failure of parents and schools to do their job. It’s tragic that parents, schools, and other institutions fail so badly that it takes military training — in which one’s personality is broken so that one can become an obedient killing machine — to make someone into a mensch.

Armistice Day

Actually, November 11 was first called “Armistice Day,” in celebration of the cessation of the violence that slaughtered millions in a war fought solely for the vanity of politicians. I know that recent evidence from German documents indicates that it wasn’t all a bunch of mistakes, that Germany actually wanted a wider war. OK, but this does not mean that WWI was not an insane folly. Germany’s wanting a wider war means that one country started a madness and others fell into their expected roles.

However it started, this was a war in which “strategy” consisted of marching lines of men into the fire of machine guns (it was the first time both sides had modern weapons); the carnage killed thousands in a single day (but no politicians, as far as I know) and practically wiped out an entire generation of young men. There were people back then who thought an occasional war was somehow “cleansing” (as long as they didn’t have to fight in it).

These are the kinds of reasons why wars happen. Stupid, irrational reasons.

Every time a military person tells me he/she is fighting for “your freedom,” I cringe. I almost weep inside for the misguided loyalty of this dedicated individual.

Not for MY freedom

Of all the wars that America has fought in my lifetime alone, only one – World War II – had anything to do with my freedom. Milton Friedman said it could have been avoided by economic means, like not bankrupting Germany aftyer WWI. At least the Allies could have confronted Hitler early on - they might have triggered a coup. Mostly America’s wars had to do with politicians’ vanity; or their need to prove their toughness by sacrificing others (if it’s so necessary, why don’t THEY go?); or America’s wish to forcibly impose its will on other countries.

So much do I respect the military person’s sense of duty that I cannot bear to tell him/her that to serve in the military is, first and foremost, to put your body, mind, and destiny in the hands of politicians.

Blood and treasure

War is not only the failure of governments to settle their differences peaceably, as sad as that is. War also represents old (mostly) men’s decisions that young men and women should suffer and die. All of us must pay for the old men’s pretensions and politics. What is history, asks economist and historian Thomas Sowell, but a tale of “how politicians have squandered human blood and treasure?”

The sad fact is that most of the horrible agony and death of the people we mourn and thank on Veteran’s Day was and is unnecessary.

Historians may debate the choice and necessity involved in various wars, but apart from the big ones, America has a history of dozens of foreign interventions based on greed for land or resources, global politicking, or worst of all, politicians’ self-image and manhood (LBJ’s testosterone alone caused tens of thousands of American lives in Vietnam).

Unnecessary wars

The current war is no exception. Failed states like Iraq and Afghanistan (and there are many such throughout the world) are not in and of themselves a danger to the US. Terrorists can train and plot anywhere in the world. Invading countries is an extremely expensive and inefficient way to fight them.

James Madison said that “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Don’t tell me that times have changed since Madison…or that his statement no longer applies. We still have vain, stupid politicians who are willing, even eager, to send young people to suffer and die.

And we still have young people who think they’re invulnerable — so they fall for the politicians’ siren song of duty, honor, valor, and country. They go out in the Humvees and tempt the roadside bombers — that’s strategy? The politicans’ misuse of these words is obscene.

On Veterans’ Day, let us remember those who have sacrificed themselves for our country – but let us not forget why they did so.

War and toughness

Non-fighting politicians learn to have no empathy whatever for the suffering their wars cause. Young men and women continue to suffer and die, while Congresspeople deliberately don’t think about it. In fact, having the callousness to be willing to send people to suffer and die is one of the criteria for a President. Is he/she tough?

I think toughness is overrated. Over the centuries, the willingness to violence has been a major factor in shaping our modern world.

Always, according to historian Jared Diamond, the winner is the society that’s better organized, with better technology and germs to which the others aren’t immune. It all starts with food production, which in turn enables population density and the emergence of all kinds of specialized occupations, including two superflouous, non-value-adding classes: priests and warriors.

The tough guys. The ones that like to play soldier, experience real danger, suffer heroically, sign up for any cause, so long as they can kill Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, whatever.

Give me a gun and somebody to kill, and I promise not to think about why (though some vets do turn against the wars they fought in). We could have had a much better life on earth without so many tough guys.

The importance of thinking

In World War II, Americans suffered and died (1,400 dead on D-Day alone) because two other nations had been gripped by mass psychosis. “How fortunate for politicians,” Hitler observed, “that people do not think.”

That includes people in government. Had Congress carefully read the Intelligence Assessment before authorizing the disaster in Iraq, and had they been thinking only of what’s best for America and what makes logical sense (instead of their perceived patriotism and their follow-the-leader-ship), they would have stood up to The Decider and stopped him and his manic accomplices in time.

Let us dedicate this Veterans’ Day to tolerance, free thought, and reason. To discourage these, as politicians and clerics invariably do, is to make perpetual war inevitable.


Alan M. Perlman is a secular humanist speaker and author — most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to

16 Responses to “Veterans’ Day, 2012 – Not for MY freedom”

  1. on 10 Nov 2011 at 10:10 pmRich

    A few comments: I was a soldier (18 mo. in VN). We weren’t brainwashed robots. We listened to Cream & Jimi amid clouds of pot, were diverse (one an Interior Decorator), lusted for hippie girls - just like our peers “In The World” (as we called USA).

    All nations w/o exception are born & maintained by Rivers of Blood. Ask G.Washington & D.BenGurion.

    The SEAL divorce rate is 90%.

    Afghan policy has been FUBAR since we “won” @ 10 yrs ago. Iraq was a horrid mistake.

    Friedman was right about Versailles Treaty. Keynes & some Brit generals knew it would lead to another war.

    Effective Economic Sanctions lead to widespread innocents’ suffering, corruption, and war (e.g. Iraq & Japan).

    Our Civil War was dress rehearsal for WW1. Euro leaders didn’t learn nothin’.

    I’m currently reading “Bloodlands” and “Inferno”.

    A nation needs people like you to pull on Leaders’ coat tails & pants suits.

  2. on 11 Nov 2011 at 1:45 amAlan

    Thanks for kind words.

    Why do we not indict and try as war criminals the perpetrators of Iraq and Afghanistan (we learned nothing from history, from “Graveyard of Empires”?)?

    How was Civil War a rehearsal? WWI had Gatling guns, gas, repeating rifles, air power, MUCH better weapons.

    “Brainwashed robot” is my epithet/stereotype. May not apply to all, some of whom may have reasons to be in combat other than propensity to violence, love of uniforms and blow-up toys, and desire to follow and give orders. What were yours?

  3. on 11 Nov 2011 at 2:18 amRich

    Civil War had rifled muskets & repeating rifles. (an idiot DC general nixed repeaters because “soldiers would shoot Too Many Bullets” - but many IL soldiers bought their own, and Cavalry always had Spencers).

    Quick mass battlefield slaughter was unprecedented. Antietam (deadliest day in US history), Pickett’s Charge, (among others) were The Somme, etc.

    I volunteered because I love my country, and saw Communism as Existential Threat. My many Mex uncles unhesitatingly rushed to join WW2 for much same reasons.

    My buddies and I in VN never spoke about such things. They bitched constantly (which amused me) but never about that - it was so obvious to us it was unquestioned.

    A fatal problem w/our current Leaders is they do not know - or seem to care about - History.

    I respect your perspectives. When coming home, I told a cabbie I fought for the 68 Chicago Rioters’ rights. He Was Disgusted!

  4. on 11 Nov 2011 at 2:32 amRick

    As unfair as the Treaty of Versailles was, I still wonder whether the resulting course leading to WWII could have been averted if the U.S. had joined the League of Nations. But maybe I’m just projecting.

    Great WWI historical novel: “The Fall of Giants” by Ken Follett. It lends a very human perspective to that era including the events that led up to the War.

    Speaking of books, “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo should be required reading at the high school level. IMO it’s one of the best anti-war novels I ever written.

  5. on 11 Nov 2011 at 2:33 amAlan

    Again, I appreciate the mutual respect. Thanks for setting me straight on the military details.

    Just saw “Centurion.” Most lasting impression: the mediaeval battlefield as a slippery slush of meat, blood, vomit, shit, piss.

    Ahhhh, Rich, I was there in Chi. in ‘68, and the rioters’ rights were never in danger in VN. The protesters were in much more danger from their own police, government and draft board.

  6. on 11 Nov 2011 at 2:36 amAlan

    I agree about the US and the League. There were several ways WWII could have been avoided, but politicians and generals avoided all of them.

    I read “Johnny.” It should be required for all enlistees as well. Its ghastly premise haunts me to this day, whenever I hear of “casualties” or “wounded.”

  7. on 11 Nov 2011 at 5:11 amRich

    Mi compadre. May Never our differing views come between us as fellow Americans. Who mutually hold dear our history & Founding Principles.

    As Gen. Sherman noted, War is Cruelty Unrefined. In some ways, pre-modern war, slaughterhouse that it was, was less horrific.

    21st Century War, if carried to ultimate conditions, will be Holocaust of Nations & Continents.

    “Centurion” is a fine film, tho it took many liberties. “Johnny…” was chilling - tho written by the Stalinist, Dalton Trumbo.

    One of the ghastly features of Napoleonic & CW & WW1 battles, standing in line, was exploding skulls and teeth of buddies as Shrapnel (a Brit surname).

    VN riots Ended the moment we left. Cambodian Communists killed 1/3 the population.

    The League of N’s, w/o Firmly Bellicose USA & England (an impossibility) would Never have deterred Hitlerian Germany.

    War, as Thuciditites (sp) noted, is Human Nature. Pride / Greed / Fear.

    We cannot escape it, except thru Losing and Disappearing from History.

  8. on 11 Nov 2011 at 5:13 pmAlan

    I share your pessimism about the inevitability of war and violence. Your final option may be humanity’s last act.

    I read an alternate history that suggested that Hitler wasn’t ready for all-out war in 1938, and if he’d been militarily opposed instead of appeased, millions of lives could have been saved. What think?

  9. on 12 Nov 2011 at 9:25 pmRich

    All books I’ve read are quite congruent.

    If France & England had stood up to Hitler at Rhineland or Czech. - he would have been forced to retreat, or even deposed in a coup, possibly by the General Staff.

    Fear: France & England. Honor & Greed: Germany.

  10. on 12 Nov 2011 at 10:00 pmAlan

    Thanks for corroboration.

    I will do my own gotcha and ask what Pacifist Non-Interventionist Perlman would have done. Hitler was an exception in so many ways (and could have been avoided - he could have been killed in a car crash in 1930), and this is one of them.

    An entire nation was going nuts and had to be saved from itself. But the West made it happen.

    If only America had had a George Marshall to rebuild after the first w. war and avoid another.

    With 2 billion Indians and Chinese, who cares about the French? The Germans are doing commendably, though. Ever efficient.

  11. on 13 Nov 2011 at 3:15 amRich

    Sans H., a different catastrophe might well have occurred (e.g., German-Soviet war, drawing all Europe into it).

    It’s imponderable. Fate, Destiny, ineluctable forces of History. I do not know.

    I think, in 2011, the future of all Europe is inextricably bound tightly. I hope they can get their act together.

    Then there is China to worry about. India, too, in its manner.

  12. on 13 Nov 2011 at 9:16 pmAlan

    For me, THE ineluctable force in history is obedience. Thoughtless obedience.

    Let’s see…I’m going to go out and carve the guts out of some stranger before he does it to me, because some asshole duke or king says I have to? Desertion of an unjust, pointless war could be an act of courage and defiance.

    Again: wars are dreamed up by fat old politicians (few of whose children “serve”), fought by fit young men, many of whom will suffer and die for the vainglorious dreams of their “leaders” (quote marks because authority is just another superstition).

    Good TIME article on isolation of the military from the rest of the country. With an all-volunteer force, what did you expect?

  13. on 11 Nov 2012 at 10:10 pmRich

    Speaking of the military (and sex), Gen Petraeus just tripped on his prick. Jeez, it happens everywhere and always. We make such a hairy deal about it all the time.

    I’m not sure it’s as bad as taking bribes, kickbacks, and money from shady domestic and foreign lobbyists.

    Maybe the French carry it a bit too far (hokey smokes - lovers, paramours, new & plural wives, mistresses, secret families!!!). But we go the other way.

    I believe the Euro Civil War(s) lasted from 1914 to 1945. I’m not sure if WCiv will ultimately survive it. Loss of elan vital, principles, morale, confidence in self or future - e.g., below replacement birthrates.

    Plus, we’re in a Revolutionary Economic, Business, Tech, and Political Era. A new Industrial Rev. It took Generations and Wars to sort the first one out.

  14. on 12 Nov 2012 at 5:40 pmRich

    And another thing or 2. US prospects look grim. 50% HS dropout rate. 60 Minutes yesterday - 3M decent jobs unfilled bc youth can’t write a sentence, do math, show up for work. McCullough stunned at college grads’ ignorance of History.

    Floods of illiterate “undoc immigrants” w/dismal Social Capital. 75% of our youth Unfit for military svc (a leading indicator, not call for Draft). Idle feckless unmarried male youth Always most dangerous destabilizing Demographic.

    40% of population flummoxed by “Do not take on empty stomach” - if they can read it at all. Know names of 3 Stooges, not 3 Branches of Govt.

    13M fewer Voters this election. Myriads of Ams don’t know basic Civics or News, but DO know SEX. Prurience on Petraeus latest example.

    Great Lakes was a Sexual Hothouse. Hetero & Lesbian. Now come the Gays (not that there’s anything Wrong w/that). Trainees had Sex (sorry, “slept w/each other”) through chain link fences. Many warships are Love Boats and/or Bordellos.

    Petraeus latest type of careerist Political General. “Genius” at PR, not Military Strategy. Yes Man to blinkered ignorant Ivy League Bosses, Whiz at Power Point baloney. Credentialed in Ivory Tower Theories and Jargon filled theses.

    Teachers learn Educational Theory, not Academic/Tech Disciplines. $Billions for “Special Ed” & Remedial Courses, peanuts for our most Gifted kids (mediocre Teachers - most ARE - HATE them).

    Littoral Combat Ships were supposed to be superfast, versatile, inexpensive, small crew, EXPENDABLE (like PT boats) high tech Bristling Gunboats. They’ve ballooned into $100M+ gold-plated White Elephants that have Never seen combat.

    Our political Leaders and Lobbyists out for Number 1. Tycoons cynical greedy Bastards. Small & Medium businesses Strangling on Regulations & Legislation & Mandates & Diversity & punctilious Inspections.

    … My latest Curmudgeonly soliloquy.

  15. on 12 Nov 2012 at 6:50 pmAlan

    Oy vey, such a Cassandra. Only problem is, you’re right.

    Some of your points I can corroborate through direct experience (over my 13-year teaching career, I could actually see kids getting poorer at reading/writing/thinking). Been hearing complaints about teachers’ poor subject knowledge for a LONG time.

    Oh yeah, and all the expensive military toys that the Pentagon doesn’t even want! WTF is up with that? Even a simpleton such as I realizes that war and threats to America are very different than in 1940 - so why are we constantly gearing up for WWII?

    And what did the brass think was going to happen when they let women into close quarters with men in the military? Or maybe they did know, and that’s why they fought it for so long.

  16. on 12 Nov 2012 at 8:15 pmRich

    I’ve heard the “don’t want” thing forever. Who, pray tell, exactly, doesn’t want it? We are never told. Stuff I know they want is scary.

    $1B Destroyers (supposed to be inexpensive “eyes of the Fleet”). $250M/per (maybe more) F-22s (too expensive to Use much). The Osprey, which killed many Marines and $B’s before it was cancelled. FA-35, in development for Decades now, ballooning in price. Gosh knows what other debacles.

    OTOH, I think (Good) Major War Weaponry is vital. Carriers are practically Obsolete now against hypersonic missiles, 1/2 of Battle Groups are there Only to protect them. But China & Russia are gearing up for Major War. Deterrence or Victory is Priceless.

    Please forgive if un-PC, but Education is college major of choice for the Worst students. The results are obvious. Funny, all that hooey about “YOU are the Future!”

    Plus, when, if ever, will we be allowed to discuss and address Academic Mediocrity & Social Pathologies honestly? Probably never.

    Gender Mixing in Military is reductio ad absurdum of PC ideology. Don’t get me wrong. I Want women in military. We Need them.

    But not in Warships, Submarines, or Combat, or other inappropriate areas. Female Sailors in 80s and 90s and 00s told me they Hated the new trend. Only SOME female officers liked it.

    Cassandra. Weren’t her eyes torn out? Or was that Oedipus? Anyway, she was Blind, and nobody believed her.

    Ain’t gettin’ old Grand? Thank heaven I still poop good.

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