Seventy-five years after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor slaughtered 2,403 Americans and launched an unprepared nation into World War II, that conflict remains for many, the “good war.” The war was unavoidable (though the U.S. long tried to avoid it); the stakes and battle lines were clear, and it accelerated the American Century.
For good reason, public officials have used the occasion to laud the nation’s veterans. As Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking House Armed Services Committee member, put it:
“Today, we commemorate the heroism and sacrifice of the more than 2,400 Americans who lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor. We will never forget them or their deeds, nor those of the millions more who fought to defeat fascism and forge a new international order that helped to secure peace around the globe. It is our profound duty to continue honoring them, by providing for our veterans and ensuring that we care for our men in women and uniform second to none.”
Few would disagree with Smith on the need to honor veterans. But in a nation where few serve in the military, too often that duty is tainted with incomprehension, condescension or well-intended pity. As Kellie Lunney documents in her compelling feature, Honoring Service, when we reflexively put veterans on a pedestal or declare them victims, we do them—and ourselves—a great disservice.
With the news that President-elect Donald Trump will tap retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly to lead the Homeland Security Department, it seems appropriate to remember Kelly’s 2010 remarks in St. Louis to commemorate Veterans Day:
Those of us who have lived in the dirt, sweat and struggle of the arena are not victims and will have none of that. Those with less of a sense of service to the nation never understand it when men and women of character step forward to look danger and adversity straight in the eye, refusing to blink, or give ground, even to their own deaths. The protected can’t begin to understand the price paid so they and their families can sleep safe and free at night. No, they are not victims, but are warriors, your warriors, and warriors are never victims regardless of how and where they fall.
Kelly made those remarks just four days after his son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Michael Kelly, died leading his platoon in Afghanistan after stepping on a land mine. He did not mention his son during the address, and later told the Washington Post in an email, "We are only one of 5,500 American families who have suffered the loss of a child in this war. The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others."