One of the great books about the effects of war is Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and if you have read it (or seen the film) you will never forget the character of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran. Septimus Warren Smith suffers from what they then called “shell shock” and we today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the course of the novel, Septimus interacts with two physicians—his local Dr. Holmes, who thinks his patient’s disorder is merely a little funk or slight depression, and then a famous London physician, Sir William Bradshaw, who takes PTSD more seriously but only prescribes an extended stay in one of his rest homes. Neither doctor listens to what Septimus actually says about himself. He feels that in his military service he has somehow committed a crime or failed to save his comrades during the Great War. In the evenings, Septimus has what Woolf calls “sudden thunder claps of fear.” Worse than that, he says that he cannot feel.
As great as Mrs. Dalloway may be, it is not the last word about veterans and their issues. So in preparation for Veterans Day weekend, I’ve been reading two books by Washington Post reporter David Finkel: his classic The Good Soldiers, and this year’s Thank You For Your Service. The first book followed the Army’s 2-16 Infantry Battalion during the 2007 surge in the Iraq war. The new book shows what became of those soldiers when they came home. Most veterans return to lead abundant and productive lives, of course, but Finkel’s two books show how the devastation experienced by earlier soldiers like Septimus Warren Smith has become more widespread: because the medical technology of the 21st century allows more grievously wounded soldiers to survive, many are living now who died on battlefields in prior wars. And there are major differences between classic wars and contemporary insurgencies. Then there were actual battlefields. Now there are potential improvised explosive devices around every corner and beside every road.
In Thank You For Your Service, David Finkel tells us about Sgt. Adam Schumann, who leaves his third deployment in Iraq on a “mental health evacuation.” Troubled by many of the same mental terrors that plagued Septimus Warren Smith, Mr. Schumann receives much better care when he comes home. Still, he is capable of both terrors and rages, and his wife Saskia struggles to cope with her own conflicting feelings: compassion for her husband and his suffering, anger at how his injuries have taken over both their lives. As in much of the literature of war and its aftermath, so in this: many of the men and women who come home from our modern wars continue to live the experience over and over again. Their lives become a search for ways to bring the chaos into some kind of control. “Every war has its after-war,” says Finkel, “and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans.”
Today we observe Veterans Day, a holiday that began with the signing of the Armistice ending World War I on November 11, 1918. Armistice Day was soon established as a holiday dedicated both to honoring the service of American veterans of the Great War and to expressing our commitment to a lasting peace. In 1954, Congress changed the holiday’s name to Veterans Day, and here is what President Eisenhower said in his proclamation of its first observance:
On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.
As we gather this morning to observe this day, let us begin by remembering its original, twin purposes. Veterans Day serves to recognize the service of all America’s veterans. And it also serves to promote what Eisenhower called “an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
President Eisenhower’s words remind us that we should distinguish Veterans Day from Memorial Day. That other holiday, which we observe in May, is properly dedicated solely to honoring those who have given their lives in the service of their country. Obviously, on any day when we honor veterans, those who have died cannot be very far from our minds. But today is not primarily about the dead. Veterans Day was established to honor the living. It asks that we set aside time not only to praise but also to seek the welfare of those who have served the United States in military service. Over the years, I have noticed that this holiday has experienced what I would call the “Memorial-Day-ization” of Veterans Day. But remember President Eisenhower’s words. Today is about remembering and reconsecrating. Let us save our elegies and eulogies for May and reach out to the survivors in November. Sometimes it is easier to be sentimental about the dead than it is to be attentive to the living. But our Gospel for today will not let us get off so easily.
Let us not confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day. Honoring our dead is one of the traits that make us human, and honoring our war dead is a basic practice of all civilized people. But often we build monuments to the fallen when we should be caring for the survivors. It is perhaps more emotionally satisfying to lay a wreath at a tomb than it is to visit a hospital. But the Jesus we meet in the Gospels always directs our concern and action toward those who suffer and struggle, to those who are with us here and now.
As Jesus says in today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, our God “is God not of the dead, but of the living.” [Luke 20:38] And later on in that same Gospel, when the women come to the tomb looking for Jesus, they are told, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” [Luke 24:5] Though we care for and honor the dead, we can do nothing for or about them. They are in God’s hands. The living are another matter. It is still within our power to do something for and about them. They are in our hands.
Let us not confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day. How do we, as Americans, as followers of Jesus, look to the living? What might we do, as Christians, as Americans, to honor our veterans and to seek their welfare in the here and now?
If we return to President Eisenhower’s vision of the holiday, we can embrace its two purposes: recognizing sacrifice, promoting peace. Here is a modest suggestion about each.
Recognizing sacrifice: there are nearly 22 million veterans alive in America today. A little over 3 ½ million of them suffer disabilities connected with their service. While we should see in those numbers reassurance that most veterans lead flourishing, abundant lives, we should be troubled to know that one out of seven homeless people in America is a veteran. On any given night, 107,000 veterans are homeless, and the Veterans Administration estimates that 1.5 million additional veterans are at constant risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and the shrinking supply of affordable housing.
My first modest suggestion: these people are not numbers, and they matter to us as Americans. They matter even more to us as people of faith. It is important that we remember and honor those who serve. It is vital that we advocate for their welfare. We need to do more as a country, as a church, than politely thank our veterans for their service. We need to make sure that public policies are in place to treat, educate, support, house, and employ them.
President Eisenhower’s second purpose for this day was to use it to promote peace. The veterans of the wars in my lifetime served in conflicts about which there was significant public disagreement: Vietnam, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan—each of these wars occasioned major protest in their own day and ongoing disagreement about their purpose even now. We should never confuse supporting a war with supporting our troops. And we should never forget that, just as serving in even unjust wars is honorable, so is working to end them. We should not use Veterans Day as a whitewash to obscure our ongoing differences about war and peace. We should use this day as a time to remember and honor the service of the men and women who fought on our behalf and to give thanks that we live in a country that embraces all those contradictions.
The God we know in Jesus “is God not of the dead, but of the living.” That God is also a God of peace, and the men and women who have served our country know perhaps better than the rest of us just how precious peace is. Let us honor them. Let us advocate for their welfare. And as General (and then President) Eisenhower exhorted us, let us, together, do everything we can to promote an enduring peace, so that their efforts shall not have been in vain. Amen.