Reflections on Veterans Day

One of my duties as Music Associate at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, AL, is to play the organ for the annual Veterans Day service. The first of these for me was one year ago. The one part of the service that really struck me was the reading of the names of all U.S. military personnel who had died in all wars during the past year. A staggering 336 names were printed in the program and read, amidst the background of a snare drum roll, with the ominous boom of a bass drum after each name. With each boom of that drum, a penetrating, sinking feeling came over me as I thought of how the loss of that one life impacted so many loved ones. It was the longest part of the service, and it went on and on, for some 45 or 50 minutes. It really came home to me and hit hard:  what a tragedy it is that we are in two undeclared no-win wars, with seemingly no end in sight and no clearly defined objective. The address given at that service spoke to the importance of sacrifice and determination, and the hope of “victory”, but no definition of victory was offered. I am certain the speaker was well-intentioned, and he no doubt felt it his patriotic duty not to call into question the policies that got us into these wars.

I write this on November 10, 2008, the eve of my second Veterans Day service to play at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. I do not know how many names of dead soldiers will be read at this year’s service, but I expect it to be a number not unlike last year’s service. While it does look like active hostilities in the Iraq war may be coming to an end relatively soon, we know not what other conflicts our troops will be sent to fight. The war in Afghanistan seems likely to be expanded, and may spill over to Pakistan.  Syria is another place to watch, given recent U.S. military actions there.

Besides the astounding numbers of people who die in wars (especially when one also includes innocent civilians), there is the number, even more staggering, of those who survive the wars whose lives are forever changed through the trauma that war brings. The truth is, most of us over here just don’t have any idea about this, because there has been no war on our own land in any of our lifetimes. Many (perhaps most) who serve in active military duty have to endure things they just don’t want to talk about. We just have no idea what may be going on inside the hearts and minds of returned soldiers. Some people manage to get on with their lives and become productive again. But many others literally fall apart, and end up on the streets with nowhere to go, becoming homeless.

As a patriot and as a Christian, it is not my duty to blindly support the decisions made by our leaders. Patriotism and support for the troops does not mean support for flawed policies that put our troops in harms way for purposes other than defending our people right here at home. I have a duty to speak out against policies that lead to war that does not meet the criteria of the Just War Theory of Christianity (as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, among others). The truth is that none of the wars to which we have sent soldiers to fight have been declared, since World War II. The Constitution vests the authority to declare war in the Congress. The President does not have any constitutional authority to make war without asking for a declaration from Congress. Open-ended resolutions from Congress giving the President the discretion to commit troops to combat hostilities as he sees fit do not fit the legal requirements of a declaration of war. Congress has, in effect, abdicated its constitutional prerogatives over war powers. We have seen the tragic results of undeclared wars, from Korea and Vietnam to the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars have been needlessly divisive and painful for the American people. No war should be fought that cannot be supported by the people. This is precisely the reason the framers of the Constitution vested the authority of war powers in the Congress. The President is not a King.

An often-overlooked aspect to war is that liberty suffers at home. History is replete with examples of this, including Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus during the War Between the States, Roosevelt’s establishment of Japanese internment camps during World War II (with the help of a complicit Congress), the authorization of military conscription during most of the wars, and the abuses we find today (suspension of Habeas Corpus, establishment of military tribunals, the use of torture in secret prisons, and so on). War also endangers the economic health of the country, driving up debt and often leading to the devaluing of the currency (as we are seeing right now with the current financial crisis). How ironic it is that we are told our troops are sent overseas to protect our liberties, while the government looks for every opportunity to use war as an excuse to erode our liberties.

I do support our troops. I support them by praying for their safety and for their safe return as soon as possible. I am also a patriot. I express my patriotism by keeping a watchful eye on the policies of our government and by speaking out against them when they do violence to the Constitution and send our troops to needless, undeclared wars that have nothing to do with protecting our people here at home (as opposed to protecting the interests of wealthy corporations). This Veterans Day it is my prayer for our soldiers to be brought home as safely and as soon as possible, and for the new President to be led to wise and cautious decisions in the conduct of foreign affairs, including a restored respect for the constitutional role of Congress over war powers.

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