I picked up Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions to re-read over the Veterans' Day weekend. It's one of those books I try to read every four or five years. I was a freshman in college when I read it the first time. I remembered it being a quick read. I didn't remember, though, that the story takes place over Veterans' Day weekend.
Here's what Vonnegut says in the book about Veterans' Day:
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy…all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not.
My grandmother remembered World War I well. She worked in an ammunition factory in Illinois during that war, having just graduated from high school. When I was very young, before America's involvement in Vietnam began, Grandma used to take me to visit her brother, my great uncle, who had fought in World War I. He was in a trench when the Germans attacked him and his buddies with mustard gas.
He got injured in that attack. I'm not sure if they called injuries from gas attacks "wounds" in World War I, since that wasn't the kind of injury that showed on the outside like a shrapnel wound or a missing arm or leg, or having part of your face or skull shot off.
My grandfather was too young to fight in World War I and too old to fight in World War II. About ten million men were just the right age to die fighting in World War I, and another ten million civilians of all ages died too. My grandmother and my great uncle said that they and everyone they knew thought World War I was the worst thing to ever happen in the history of mankind, and that they all thought that way until World War II came along. Almost 70 million people died in World War II, which made it roughly three and a half times more deadly than World War I.
Mr. Bush, the current president of the United States, says that if Iran gets the nuclear bomb, we'll have a World War III. Iran says it has no interest in getting a bomb, and Mr. Bush has yet to prove Iran is lying, which is more than we can say of Mr. Bush. I'd guess that Mr. Bush wants some of us to think that if there's a World War III, it will be 3.5 times as deadly as World War II, just like World War two was 3.5 times deadlier than World War I. Wow, that would mean almost 245 million people would die in World War III. I find that concept quite frightening. I wonder if Mr. Bush meant to scare me like that, with all that talk about World War III.
Fortunately for me, I'm too old to fight in World War III, just like I was too young to fight in Vietnam. The wars I fought in were against Iraq and Kosovo. Very few Americans died in those wars, and not all that many of our enemies died in those wars either, I mean, if you compare those wars to World War I and World War II. I'm also a decorated veteran of the war on drugs, I'll have you know. These days I take several drugs, but they're the kind doctors make you take to remind you you're no spring chicken any more.
My dad was just barely young enough so he didn't have to fight in Korea. He got drafted, and he and all his pals thought they were headed for war as soon as they finished boot camp, but both sides agreed to a cease-fire before that happened, so my dad got to spend two years with my mom in Germany instead. That's why I was born in Germany, instead of America where natural born Americans are supposed to be born. Because I was born of American parents in an American military hospital, I'm one of the very few citizens born overseas who can still become the president of the United States, but that privilege is pretty much wasted on me since I don't want the job. As an adult, I've tended to not think very highly of the people who've held it.
I'm a disabled veteran, though you wouldn't know it to look at me. My disability involves my back and my hip, conditions aggravated by many years of sitting in ejection-style seats while flying in Navy aircraft. So my injuries don't show, unless it’s a real bad day for me and I limp a little when I walk. Heh, my injuries, like my great uncle's, are on the inside.
A lot of present day veterans, veterans of Vietnam and the Gulf Wars, are suffering from wounds on the inside of the kind we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. In World War I they called that sort of thing "shell shock," and it was around World War II time frame that they started calling it "combat fatigue." I know a lot of people these days who think veterans who say they have PTSD are sissies, or worse yet, that they're faking it.
And you know, the people who say that about veterans with PTSD are veterans themselves. Many of them are veterans of Vietnam, a war in which 50,000 American troops died.
Some of these veterans scoff when they hear the killed in action figures for the present war in Iraq. Heck, more people of that age group get killed in highway accidents at home, they'll say. What's the point of all the hand wringing over that few kids getting killed in Iraq?
I ask if they mean that it's okay about the kids killed in Iraq because they would have died in highway accidents anyway, is that how they're saying it works? Are they saying getting killed in a war doesn't count unless tens of millions of other people get killed in the war too?
No, they mutter, that's not what they're saying, I know what they mean, don't I? And I tell them that no, I don't know what they mean. After that they usually start talking to somebody else.
These war veterans and the people they talk to after they're uncomfortable talking with me any more are still big supporters of Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney, who both went quite a ways out of their ways to avoid being war veterans.
I have this little veterans' memorial along the edge of my yard. It's where I put in some new plants early in the fall, so they'd be established when winter came and then bloom when spring rolls around. Puttering around the garage while I was in the middle of this yard project, I found a miniature U.S. flag on a small stick, one of those things you see real estate agents plant a million of in everybody's yard on the Fourth of July. I'd saved this one from the Fourth, for some reason. Anyway, there it was on a shelf in my garage, and I picked it up and took it out where I'd just put all the new plants and stuck it in the ground, where it has stayed 24/7 ever since.
I think of this little plot as my memorial to everyone I personally knew who died in uniform. None of them died in combat. Most of them died in "training accidents," mainly aviation related, things like disappearing into the side of a mountain or flying to the bottom of the ocean.
I keep thinking someone who thinks he's really, really patriotic will come along someday when I'm in the yard playing with my dogs or something and tell me how I'm not treating the flag properly, that I should know better than to leave it outside day and night, rain or shine, what with me being a veteran and all.
I can't wait to see the look on that person's face when I say what I have to say in reply to that. It should be pretty comical, the look on the face of that person who thinks he's so all fired patriotic.
That person might look like he just heard the Voice of God.
Kurt Vonnegut, in case you didn't know, was a veteran of World War II, and saw his fair share of the 70 million people who died in that conflict. He was an infantry soldier who was taken prisoner by the Germans along with some of his buddies, and was in Dresden when the allies bombed the snot out of it and burned it to a crisp. He wrote about that experience in another novel of his called Slaughterhouse Five. If Kurt Vonnegut came down from heaven and pitched me a ration of guff about that little flag in my yard, I'd probably stay calm and listen to what he had to say, and even thank him for stopping by.
Anybody else who wants to give me a hard time about that flag, though…
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword, ePluribus and Military.com Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books, ISBN: 9781601640192) will be available March 1, 2008.