After a trip to the hair salon this morning, I went back downtown to find the streets around the Common closed. I had arrived just at the start of the Veteran's Day parade, led off by a band of bagpipers and a small cavalry unit. So I stopped to watch the parade, thinking about my great-uncle who passed away last month, a WWII vet, my grandfather who died young, also a WWII vet, my uncle, a Korean War vet--it had never really occurred to me somehow that my dad's family was so military. ( see? )My dad was of an age to be drafted for Vietnam, but fortunately for him he was working on a radar project deemed of importance to national security, plus had a family, and wasn't drafted. So I thought about these men as the vets marched by, and my heart ached a bit for the great-uncle with the life long lived, the grandfather who was loved by all but I never knew and the uncle who never could seem to find peace until cancer took him. The Waltham Veterans Association marching band came by, all of them I would say WWII and Korean War vets, the bass drummer pushing his drum along ahead of him in one of those rolling wire shopping carts with a look that dared anybody to think any less of him for not being able to carry the drum himself, the saxophonist bent and twisted nearly as much as his instrument, the women in their support hose and glasses. And the Chinatown Veterans Association--many of them were WWII veterans. I can't begin to imagine how difficult it must have been to be a person of Asian descent serving during WWII. Of course it was the Japanese the US was at war with, but I suspect that subtlety would have been lost on many. They got a big cheer from the crowd, all colors and ages of people. I clapped too. I don't like the idea of war--nobody in their right mind should--but in this moment I loved every one of those veterans, from Waltham or Chinatown or wherever, for having gone through whatever experiences the tides of war dealt them, for the sake of future generations, which would be me and my extended family of blood and friends.
Then came the Junior ROTC and the students of the Boston area military high schools, and I had to stay for them. Some of them could be headed to Iraq or Afghanistan come this June or next, at least the military high school kids, and I thought they deserved to see people standing to see them march. Again, I don't like war, it shouldn't happen, I have very, very, very mixed feelings about our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I felt like these kids should have random strangers stop and respect them for their commitment and courage, regardless of the government's policies that send them into difficult, perhaps impossible situations. So I smiled at the young men and women as they marched with their varying degrees of precision but unwavering sense of pride in filling out a uniform, even a uniform so small.
It occurred to me as I watched that with the exception of the Chinatown Veterans Association, nearly all of the Korean War/WWII vets were white, the few Vietnam vets (who marched for POW/MIA rather than as an Association or post) were white, but the vast majority of the JROTC and military high school men and women were minority, mostly black or Latino. There were some white kids in there, but not many. It was hard to know what to make of that. On the one hand, I felt proud for the kids who were obviously working hard and finding a path for success. I don't want to assume that they were all from disadvantaged backgrounds, but given the locations of the high schools involved, I think that could be taken as something of a given. On the other hand, I couldn't help but see a country that sends its minorities (racial or economic) off to war so that the majority (racial or economic) can exploit their labor and keep their own hands clean. That is nothing new; it's been happening since Vietnam, since wars stopped being about what was right and honorable--stopping Hitler! even if the US had to be dragged in kicking and screaming!--and started being about what was politically or economically advantageous.
So I am equal parts appreciative and angry today. I hope all those kids eventually become veterans and survive wherever they are sent, and I hope that they get the support they need when they return. I urge everyone--in any country--to write your senators, representatives, members of Parliament, presidents, prime ministers, queens, whathaveyou to demand that very thing, proper veterans support services, from professionally-run hospitals to continuing mental counseling to treating their bodies with respect after they are gone (see the Salon series on Arlington National Cemetery, if you don't know what I am talking about there). It's not "cool" to care about veterans. It's way more cool to be in the anti-war rally that follows the parades. But we make our society a better place one step at a time, and repaying those who have given everything they have would be a step in the right direction. From small acts of compassion greater things may spring.