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The Conversation: Veterans Day

An American Flag sits on a tombstone in the Marietta National Military Cemetery Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010, in Marietta, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Has Veterans Day lost its meaning when most of us today never serve in the military and probably never will? If you are not in the armed forces—or related to someone who is—it’s disturbing how easy it is to ignore the significance of the day and just regard it as a welcome day off. Right now American men and women in uniform are fighting wars across the globe. The recent election hardly made it an issue. How should we put this day in perspective? To answer this question are Mike Nelson, editor in chief of the Long Island Press; Spencer Rumsey, the Press’ senior editor, and Tom Butcher, the Press’ distribution manager and a former sergeant in the U.S. Army.

Spencer: I always thought Veterans Day was unique because you didn’t celebrate it only on Mondays. The date actually meant something, not like these Monday holidays. But the economy doesn’t really stop, does it? You can see a parade if you’re so inclined but most people’s lives have nothing to do with it. I grew up listening to Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”and other songs with lyrics like Pete Seeger’s “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” I marched in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. I could never understand my father’s disappointment that the Marines rejected him in WWII because he was color blind. I thought he was lucky. His brother got in and was gearing up to invade Japan, had the A-bombs not been dropped. My dad actually worked on the Manhattan Project. For some reason I have an insatiable appetite for Civil War history. So I guess I’m all over the map.


Tom: Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day after WWI. It stood for the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when the treaty was signed, so the exact date was very meaningful. I can understand your father’s feelings about serving in WWII. Many people back then wanted to do their part to help defeat the Nazis and get back at Japan for their attack on the U.S. Many felt they were letting the country down if they didn’t go. Men would lie about their age just to sign up and serve.

Mike: My father served in the Navy, and as a young writer—in, say, my early 20s—I strongly romanticized military service. I was (and am) a great fan of Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, both of whom served, and both of whose service played a great role in defining their literary voices. As an aimless youth, I reached out to the Air Force—thinking I might follow in Thompson’s footsteps: from Air Force malcontent to generation-defining journalist—but I never followed up on my initial inquiry. (This was presumably the right decision, as I would have made a miserable soldier.) The funny thing is, my parents, particularly my mother, grew up with the draft as a constant looming threat, and they went to great lengths to obtain for me, their only son, dual citizenship, so if a draft were implemented, I could leave the country with no threat of legal recrimination. I am now a citizen of both the United States and Ireland due to my parents’ paranoia/savvy planning. Suffice it to say, there has not been a draft in my lifetime and I have never been to Ireland. At this point I’m too old to be drafted anyway; I still plan to visit the Emerald Isle someday.

Spencer: I was in high school during the Vietnam War. My uncle was working in Canada, and his kids had dual-citizenship for the same reason you did, Mike.  My uncle was against the war, my father believed if we didn’t stop the Vietcong over there, we’d be fighting them in our backyard. Before I turned 18, I went to a draft counselor at a local church to see how I felt about becoming a conscientious objector. I couldn’t do it because I really could justify using violence to defend the country. But I couldn’t defend a war to prop up an unpopular dictator. The heaviest day of my life was listening to the draft lottery on the radio with friends in my freshman year. The pressure was unbearable so we all got increasingly wasted, and lost track of how many days there were in a year. All I remember is the eternity between the disembodied voice announcing my birth date and then saying its rank on the call-up list: 243. I practically hit the ceiling. I figured the only way I’d be drafted with a number that high is if the Red Chinese invaded California.

Tom: My father was in the Navy during WWII and his father was in the Army. My father never pushed me to join, but growing up I remember watching Victory at Sea with him. Spencer, I agree with your father, if other countries didn’t stop or at least try to stop the communists, they would have been in our backyard eventually. People say we lost the Vietnam War and we did, but the U.S. killed a lot more of them than they did of us. The communists saw it wouldn’t be easy to keep expanding. But if everybody thought like you and your uncle, who would be there to protect our country? So, on Veterans Day make sure you take time to thank a vet and thank god there are still many brave Americans willing to serve and protect our country—even if it means serving around the world in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

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