In the United States, November 11 is called Veterans Day. In other parts of the world it’s called Remembrance Day or Armistice Day. The latter is appropriate since it celebrates the anniversary of the day hostilities formally ceased in the First World War. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
Ninety-five years. And what have we learned? Aside from more efficient and more impersonal methods for killing, not a hell of a lot. We’re still fighting wars, we’re still fighting them for the same stupid reasons, and at the behest of the same powerful business and political interests. Young men and women are still killing and dying in foreign lands. And nobody is paying much attention.
As of this date, 402 troops have died fighting in Afghanistan this year. Most of those (310) were US troops, but soldiers and marines from the UK, from Poland, from Georgia (the former Soviet state), from Romania and Slovakia and Italy and Germany and Australia have also been killed.
In the last few days 42-year-old Warrant Officer Ian Fisher of Barking, Essex in England was killed in an IED attack in Lashkar Gah in Helmund Province. Army Sergeant 1st Class Forrest Robertson, 35 years old, of Westmoreland, Kansas was killed by small arms fire in Pul-i-Alam in Kogar Province — also known as Bab al-Jihad, the Gates of Jihad, because of the savage fighting between Soviet troops and mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war. Army Specialist Angel Lopez, 27, from Parma, Ohio was killed by small arms fire in a Green on Blue attack in Zabul Province. Twelve deaths in the first nine days this month. The youngest was 19 years old. Nineteen years old — Jeremiah Collins of Milwaukee wasn’t even old enough to buy a beer. Dead, 7000 miles from home, in service to his country.
All of those troop who’ve died have families and friends, they have fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, they have wives and husbands and children. Outside of their families and friends, hardly anybody will notice those deaths. Because nobody, really, is paying much attention.
I mentioned this earlier in the year. At that point there were about 70,000 US troops serving in Afghanistan; today there are about 60,000. Combat operations by US troops are slated to end in late 2014 — but even then the US will likely leave between 15,000 and 30,000 troops in the region. And be sure of this: some of them will be fighting and dying.
There’s still only one media outlet that routinely pays attention to the troops serving in combat zones — the liberal muckraking magazine Mother Jones. They still publish their brilliant photo series We’re Still at War: Photo of the Day. I don’t know how many people bother to look at the photos. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
Why? Because the war is primarily being fought by strangers — by people we don’t know and don’t care about. Historically, wars have always been fought primarily by the poor and working class. Officers, of course, usually come from the middle classes, but most of the killing and dying has been done by the underclasses. The demands of twelve years of war — the longest war in US history — have exacerbated that problem. The gap between the people who initiate the wars and the people who actually fight them is greater now than ever before. And the mass in the middle — which includes most of the American public — are estranged from both groups. And so when a soldier gets killed in some dusty desert, very few people are affected, and nobody pays much attention.
On Monday — Veterans Day — I’ll meet with my brother and my cousin, both of whom served in the Marines, and we’ll attend a breakfast given by a local grocery store chain (Hy-Vee), just as we’ve done for the last few years. There’ll be a lot of old veterans there — a handful from World War II, a few from Korea, some from Viet Nam and Iraq and Afghanistan. The food will be mediocre — but better than what we’d have gotten in the mess hall back when we were in uniform.
Nobody will be there just for the food. We’ll all be there because we’re veterans, and on this one day some folks will pay attention. Most of the veterans sitting down to breakfast will have scars, physical or emotional. Some will be missing limbs. And every one of us will, at some point, remember somebody who was wounded or killed.
As we enter and leave the breakfast venue, the volunteers from the grocery store will thank us for our service. And they’ll be sincere, because they’re working people. Some of them will be veterans themselves, or have family members who have served or are still serving. During the day a lot of politicians will also give public thanks for our service. Some of them will be sincere and some of them will mean it. Damned few of them, though, will actually understand what service to the country means. It means sacrifice. When most politicians speak about sacrifice, they’re talking about other people.
On Tuesday the 12th, the world will forget us for another year. Troops in Afghanistan will continue to go out on patrol. Some of them will get wounded. Some will get killed. And nobody will pay much attention.
Editorial note: The photos above were shot by members of the military, and published in Mother Jones magazine.