I took my dog to our veterinarian for a yearly check-up examination. Afterwards, we stepped to the reception desk to pay our bill. Just ahead of us, the medical technician informed a man paying for his dog’s medications that his bill included a 10% price reduction since he was a military veteran.
I thought that this was not only appropriate, but that defenders of the country’s security should be given an even greater discount.
I have long thought, though, about whom our country includes in its socially-constructed category of “veteran.” Currently, that classification remains limited to those honorably serving in our armed forces. And yes, this service and this profession has traditionally been determined by our society as honorable and noble work.
Why, though, have we circumscribed the parameters of “veteran”? Why have we so limited its definition?
Symbolically, visiting Washington, DC highlights and exposes the demarcated confines of the nation’s “veterans” through its gleaming and stirring monuments and memorials.
Though certainly moving and appropriate (with some exceptions), they give testament to our nation’s past wars, and honor primarily presidents who either served during wartime or achieved prominence in war.
Therefore, the symbolic and literal narrative of our nation’s capital speaks only part of our collective story. The fulcrum on which the foundation of this narrative rests represents an important, though incomplete, story primarily about white male leaders with armed conflict as the organizing principle.
Take, for example, our most notable and visible monuments and memorials situated on the National Mall. Standing tall and visible for miles around in every direction, the Washington Monument honors our first president, one of our “founding fathers” who organized and led what began as a rag tag, disorganized, and undisciplined array of resistors into an effective fighting force.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, reflected in the Tidal Basin, gives tribute to the author of the Declaration of Independence, which sparked the War of Independence.
The Abraham Lincoln Memorial, which greets visitors as they cross the Key Bridge over the Potomac River from Virginia into the District, memorializes the man who served over a divided land, and who eventually kept the nation intact during trying times.
And the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, one of the most expansive in sheer acreage, gives homage to our longest serving chief executive who presided during a time of great peril as ruthless tyranny threatened both domestic and world democracies.
In addition, the World War II Memorial, situated directly between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, stands in tribute to the “greatest generation” of patriots who defeated the forces of tyranny and oppression continents away.
The Korean War Memorial, located in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial, keeps fresh the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Cold War. The Vietnam Memorial, its black marble reflecting the faces of young and old as they come to witness the thousands of names inscribed on its surface, helps to heal some of the many wounds of a divided nation torn apart by war far from home.
It is encouraging we can also find the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the National Museum of the American Indian, and soon, the Armenian Genocide Museum of America.
A small and relatively unknown statue stands at the east front portico of the US Capitol called The Peace Monument: a marble sculpture constructed between 1877-1878 that includes three women (Grief, History, and Victory) and the inscription, “In memory of the officers, seamen and marines of the United States Navy who fell in defense of the Union and liberty of their country, 1861-1865.”
Can we as a nation begin now to consider expanding the category of “veteran” to include the diplomats and the mediators, those working in conflict resolution, and activists dedicated to preventing wars and to bringing existing wars to diplomatic resolution once they have begun? What about the practitioners of non-violent resistance in the face of tyranny and oppression?
Individuals who stand up and put their lives on the line to defend our country from threats to our national security, as those in our nation’s military do, are true patriots and veterans. But true patriots and veterans are also those who speak out, stand up, and put their lives on the line by actively advocating for justice, freedom, and liberty through peaceful means.
Looking over the history of humanity, it is apparent that tyranny could only be countered through the raising of arms. On numerous occasions, however, diplomacy has been successful, and at other times, it should have been used more extensively before rushing to war.
It is unacceptable when one’s love of country is called into question when advocating for peaceful means of conflict resolution. It is also an act of patriotism to keep our brave troops out of harm’s way, and to work to create conditions and understanding that ultimately make war less likely.
To be clear, I am not arguing that everyone be granted retail discounts by expanding our classification of “veteran,” or even that others acknowledge us for our service in working for a better and more just society.
But take a few moments to consider those fighting a cultural and figurative civil war to reduce the violence and injustice and place the United States in higher standing around the world.