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Honoring our veterans

Hearing those who see war’s folly

With Veterans Day, we are reminded how much gratitude and respect we owe those veterans who have scrutinized their wars and themselves with moral courage. They are vital voices of patriotism in the face of their country’s militarized budget, politics and foreign policy.

War profiteering in World War I was mammoth; and no one nailed the profiteers and racketeers so head on as the straight-talking, most highly decorated Marine in history — Brig. Gen. Smedley Butler. War is the oldest, most profitable racket, he declared — one in which billions of dollars are made for millions of lives destroyed. Of the estimated $52 billion cost of World War I, industry war profiteers pocketed nearly a third. More than 21,000 new American millionaires and billionaires emerged from the human ashes of the war, while the federal government was mired in post-war debt — a debt paid for by working people’s taxes. During the Depression and Dust Bowl era, Smedley staunchly advocated for homeless and unemployed WWI veterans who had not yet received promised bonuses from the federal government.

George McGovern flew 35 high-risk missions in World War II, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross, in a war he felt we had no choice to enter. This veteran’s 1972 candidacy for president centered on ending the Vietnam War, a war, as he saw it, we had no right to enter. McGovern had no secret plan for peace, only a public one, he said. “From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation, Come Home America,” he pleaded in accepting his party’s nomination.

Camillo “Mac” Bica, a Vietnam War veteran, wrote recently that he does not want to be thanked for his service, giving five reasons. In the service, he lost his innocence in witnessing “the horrible and unnecessary deaths of good friends.” Being thanked for military service reminds him of what he would like to forget but cannot — that he killed innocent people. Words of thanks reinforce his belief that many people haven’t a clue about the reality of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan and remind him that many citizens were either “apathetic” or even supported these wars but did not have to fight them, avoided fighting in them, and did nothing to end them. Bica would prefer to be thanked for his 45 years following discharge from the Marines in which he has worked for human rights, social justice, and to end “the insanity of war.” He invites those who want to support military members and veterans and express meaningful patriotism to “do what is truly in the interest of the nation and those victimized by war.” In other words, make demands for a more just and peaceful world.

Chuck Palazzo was stationed at Da Nang at the age of 17, where he followed orders and sprayed the herbicide Agent Orange, knowingly contaminated by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, with an extremely toxic dioxin in their speeded-up manufacturing process. The former Marine sold his software company in 2008 and returned to Da Nang where he works as a member of Veterans for Peace to build small farms for Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and their families. He cried when first visiting child victims of Agent Orange — from “the pain of seeing a deformed body caused by himself more than 40 years ago.” He and other veterans are working tirelessly to support the still unsuccessful Vietnamese plaintiffs seeking justice in American courts for three generations of injuries from chemical warfare. “For many veterans, this is a moral and ethical issue,” he writes of the toxic contamination of living environments, land mines and unexploded ordnance left behind by the war.

In a 2011 interview on National Public Radio, Panayiota Bertzihis, a Coast Guard veteran describes the retaliation against victims for reporting sexual assault. She was raped by a fellow Coast Guard member, given no medical services, made to continue working with her rapist, and ultimately dismissed from the Coast Guard as unfit for duty. The source of her “unfitness for duty” was the trauma she suffered from both the assault and her futile attempts to seek justice from a stonewalling commander who told her to “shut up and leave his office.” Bertzihis is 1 of 17 plaintiffs in a class action suit filed Feb. 15, 2011 in Federal District Court in Virginia against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumford and then Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The lawsuit charges them with failure to protect service members from repeated rape and sexual assault in the military and failure to investigate complaints and to prosecute and punish perpetrators. She founded the Military Rape Crisis Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Iraq veteran Tyler Boudreau cuts to the heart of combat stress suffered by hundreds of thousands of recent war veterans: “It comes from witnessing, and participating in, extreme violence.” Combat stress is not fundamentally a psychological disorder, he asserts; it is from the moral injury of fighting in war. “Whether or not one believes the cause of war is good,” he writes, “the violence will always be bad for the soul.”

Veterans, like these, are experts on what the physical, sexual, mental and moral violence of war does to the human spirit. We honor them.

Pat Hynes is a retired Professor of Environmental Health and president of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice. She lives in Montague.

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