Today is Veteran’s Day, a day of commemoration whose meaning and import are well beyond the moanings of any single idiot on his blog. It’s a day we pin poppies to shirts, dwell fondly on thoughts of heroes and heroism and, if you’re an actual veteran, harass local restaurants for free food. It’s a day we wave flags at conflicted individuals strapped to parade floats built in their honor, whether or not they feel particularly honorable. It’s a day we thank random strangers we know nothing about for fighting for our freedom, even though the only serious threats to American freedom in the last half century have come from government security initiatives and American voters hungering for an imbecile king.
It’s a day of profound and ambivalence for me personally, a Marine Corps veteran of five years on active duty lacking not only combat experience but any deployment experience at all. I’m aware of the consolations offered to individuals such as myself: “Hey, at least you volunteered, and that’s more than 99% of America can say.” “Your job was important, too.” “Be glad. People don’t come back the same.” Well, yes. Sure. The lattermost is something for which one must feel at least some gratitude. But one doesn’t volunteer for the military with the aim of coming out the other side unchanged. We join because we feel an obligation. To show up as a tool for war and then be stowed in a broom closet for a few years does not leave you with any sense of moral or ethical satisfaction.
Granted, enlisted Marines don’t have much say in the matter. When I signed up to be a cryptologic linguist, the recruiter, a buck-toothed Texan hick with a beer gut and a greasy smile, assured me my job would be on the ground with infantry, running around with a radio on my back and shouting at people in Arabic. I arrived at my duty station two years later as a Farsi translator and assigned a desk in an air-conditioned building with a cafe. Never trust a recruiter. Despite practically begging for a deployment for a year, I only ever heard, “Get back to work and wait your turn.”
The prospects of any deployment were slim, even after I was retrained in Pashto. By that point I’d developed a repetitive strain injury in my shoulders, thanks to a “Type II sub-acromion”—a little nub that sticks out of my shoulder bones and digs into my bicep muscles when performing certain overhead exercises. Pullups, mainly. If you know anything about Marine Corps fitness, you know pullups are the essential benchmark of, well, everything. It was a long and frustrating process to track down the cause of my injury, and not only from a medical mystery standpoint. It was a constant embarrassment and source of shame that performing pullups injured me. I was never a stellar Marine fitness-wise, but this made me a walking joke. Always injured, never deployed, not deployable. I was at best a half-Marine.
On top of that, my constant absence from work to track down the shoulder issue meant I didn’t develop well in my new Pashto duties. I never attained the confident proficiency I had in my Farsi. Pashto is, admittedly, a far more difficult language than Farsi, and our targets and mission presented all sorts of additional challenges, but these are obstacles that could be overcome with persistence and experience. I’d have to be at work regularly for that, though.
Two events made this all the worse. The first was when our battalion commander, a Marine colonel, toured the building where we worked. I gave him an ad-hoc presentation a day after I was told he would not come to our particular corner. He then went to see the other Marine Pashto linguists, and he told them their work was important and mine was not. What a motivator.
The second incident was when the agency we worked under requested I deploy for one of their missions. I’m not exaggerating when I say this was actual spy work. No uniform. Civilian clothing. Doing top secret level work undercover on the other side of the world in a country where a particular flavor of local would be delighted to slice off my head. This is the sort of thing boys dream about, and they had asked me to do it. I didn’t even need to have functioning shoulders to do it.
But, of course, the Marine Corps denied their request. They had to. I was non-deployable in their eyes. I don’t blame them for it. But the moment I was told “No” was the lowest moment of my Marine Corps career, and it remains the most emblematic. No deployment. No real service of note. Just physical weakness and mediocre work as a linguist.
And that brings us to Veteran’s Day, a day that, presumably, includes some sort of celebration of me. I don’t feel celebration-worthy. I don’t feel celebratory. It’s a day when the unquestioned valour and determination of men and women in the worst of circumstances is shown on loop on every television screen and every news page. It’s a day when I’m lumped in with these men and women, a day of good intentions but profound mistaken identity.
It’s an annual reminder of my failure to do what I set out to do, a day of confusion and shame and regret and frustration. I wanted to become part of some grand, noble narrative. My story lacks any nobility or heroism. It is only weakness and inflammation and mediocrity—where it is not outright failure.
But maybe that’s what Veteran’s Day is. It’s the day we commemorate the end of the war to end all wars on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Fat lot of good that did. O Willie McBride, it all happened again, and again and again and again and again. It’s a day we commemorate the failure of military as a tonic for the ills of mankind, a day we pause to remember the sacrificial victims generation after generation society hurls fruitlessly into the volcano to appease their insatiable gods. That is the only light in which “fighting for our freedom” makes any sense. There are no hordes at the gates coming to take away our constitutional freedoms. We give those away to our own homegrown tyrants rather happily. To fight for freedom is throw one’s body on the sacrificial pyre as an appeasement to ravenous spirits. I have done that. I have hurled my body, frail and useless as it is, on the pyre. I am failed kindling perhaps, but kindling I volunteered to be.
Happy Veteran’s Day, everyone. Go get your free waffles.