I approach Veteran’s Day with mixed emotions.  I want to honor all who choose to serve our country, but it bothers me that the form of service we seem most ready to honor – and often the only service we honor – is military service.  This past Veteran’s Day, I saw people posting pictures and making comments claiming that the only reason our nation enjoys so many individual freedoms is because the military fights and members of the military die to protect them.  That’s easy to say but difficult to prove.  And to be honest, right now, I think the ACLU does more to protect our freedoms than does the US military.

I am also troubled by the need to honor veterans.  I think that need is very real.  We (as a country) send young men and women (and increasingly middle aged men and women) off to foreign countries to fight wars.  We ask a great deal of them and offer little in the way of compensation (particularly for enlisted personnel).  No wonder we feel a need to honor them.  But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t fight wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan?  If we didn’t send the men and women of our military off to fight in those wars we wouldn’t need to honor them, and I would argue that those wars have done little if anything to protect our freedoms.

I say all this knowing that I chose to serve my country in ways other than serving in the military and so, I turn the rest of this blog post to Nathaniel Brooks, a World War II veteran.  What follows is a sermon he preached on Sunday, November 13, at the Unitarian Universalist church in Nashua, New Hampshire.

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November 11 was set aside to honor those who served in our nation’s wars.  The date commemorates Armistice Day when, in 1918, the guns went quiet to end WW1. I was merely five months old then but WW1 had already played an important part in my life. The war had begun in 1914 and for the next three years Americans debated whether to get into it.  At a rally opposing entry, my mother and father first met and lo, I am here. But despite the opposition, the U.S. entered the war in 1917, President Wilson calling it “the war to end wars”.

In my later childhood I came to understand that the war had been simply a contest for dominance in Europe, no more moral than a gang war; and how bloody it was – of 65 million combatants 37 million were killed or wounded. This knowledge first shaped my feelings about war, and those feelings were confirmed by subsequent wars in the 1930’s. I learned to be skeptical about declarations by governments and to question the motives of their power elites. So for some years I joined with other students to work for peace.

Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor!  Two weeks later I volunteered to serve in the Army. At that point, I thought it was a necessary war and to be true to myself I should get in promptly. Along with 16 million others I served in the Armed Forces until 1946.

Now, as a veteran, a UU and an old man who has seen much, I would like to share some thoughts with you as we consider Veterans Day 2011. A bit of history – Armistice Day, whose message was primarily “promote peace so we never have war again,” was renamed as Veterans Day in 1954, a time of Cold War, and honoring military service became the central theme.

We, in the national organization, Veterans for Peace say: thanks for honoring those who served and honor them further by working to end wars.  Unfortunately the holiday is sometimes misused to glorify militarism and war. Politicians say words like “our heroes who have kept us free and safe.”  In my view none of this statement is true. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were no threat to our safety; wartimes made us less free and our soldiers are not heroes – not for lack of bravery, many are very brave, but because the task they were assigned and required to carry out is evil and ugly, not heroic. I don’t fault the soldiers, indeed I deeply care for their well-being. But I am angry with those who sent them to kill and perhaps be killed – and then employ flowery phrases to mask their guilt and entice a new crop of young people.

We have been told that American troops will return from Iraq “with their heads held high, proud of their success…” Heads held high?  Yes, they will be happy to be home and we hope they are well. Many of the soldiers who already returned have had severe and sometimes crippling injuries. It is estimated that half of them have brain injuries or are suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. They come home to find a depressed economy with few jobs available. So I say “We sent them and now we owe them the best care and support we can provide.”

Proud of their success?  In what ways did the invasion of Iraq succeed?  For no reason that can stand the light of day, that country, that people, was torn apart and heavily destroyed. Considering our most basic UU value, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”, war is the greatest obscenity and an intolerable offense to morality.

So where does one begin?  To bring change to any established way of doing things it is important to understand who benefits from the status quo and who loses by it.

So who benefits from our wars?  Clearly, the corporations that provide the war materials and services; and also multinational corporations that gain favored access to foreign markets, cheap labor and natural resources (oil for example).

On the other hand, what does it mean for our general population – the 99 percent? Sons and daughters sent to war; deaths, injuries and long-term health problems; and taxpayer costs in the trillions for wartime and after-war costs.  While some jobs are created to meet military requirements, economists say that if the same dollars were spent on peacetime needs, considerably more jobs could be created.  More importantly, while dollars spent on war are blown up or otherwise wasted, they could instead be used to improve our economy and quality of life through renewable energy, clean air and water, high-speed rail, well-equipped schools and more. Instead of such advances, war costs increase the deficit and create pressure to cut spending on social needs.

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates retired in June he said we need to decide “what is the kind of role the American people – accustomed to unquestioned military dominance – want their country to play in the world”? A good question!

Do we want to continue maintaining and expanding an empire; spending as much on our military as all the other nations of the world combined; manning hundreds of bases around the world; viewing ourselves as the ultimate judge and police in international relations?

Recently we see new forms of warfare – drones, preventive assassinations, so-called “humanitarian” wars; what do we think about these?  How to deal with the lurking dangers posed by nuclear weapons and the possible militarization of Space also challenges us. In our congregation we should create opportunities to learn and talk together about such complex and urgent questions.

And very importantly, we need to talk with our youth, who are the prime target of militarists and also our best hope for new thinking and change. Help them to think about bravery, heroism, patriotism – how these qualities may be expressed in times of peace, and how they are distorted in wartime.

People ask: can we hope for a more peaceful future?  I believe we can because human beings are intelligent, and if they are not swept away with manufactured fears they will increasingly come to realize that war is not the answer – and for a real danger they will seek every reasonable course other than military conflict.

A greater readiness to challenge war emerged during the Vietnam War, when popular opposition reached unprecedented levels. For decades following, Washington spoke of “the Vietnam syndrome” as though the people’s unwillingness to start another war was an illness.

More recently, while the American public was misled, there were massive demonstrations around the world opposing an invasion of Iraq.  Today the majority of Americans want out of the current wars.

The ultimate goal of abolishing war may seem beyond reason.  Consider however, that slavery, which was part of human existence for thousands of years, was eventually declared intolerable. And while there are still occasional examples of people being enslaved, they are considered a violation – not just of international law – but of human morality. The same is true of chemical warfare and I think torture and then capital punishment will follow in this century. I may be too optimistic but as our minister might say – “So may it be!”