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Armistice is what’s needed

This Veterans Day, instead of using the day to assuage our collective guilt by thanking military veterans for their service in what’s now called “the perpetual war,” why not instead ask one or two for their opinions on the hard questions? While some might be reluctant to share their innermost feelings, gentle probing sometimes gets results. Admittedly, we veterans do this gentle probing the best because a fellow veteran knows something about what they’ve been through—and that we care genuinely for his or her answers.

When I was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center a year or so ago, I met a multiple-amputee. He had been badly wounded while attempting to defuse an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. As we sipped coffee together in the hospital’s main lobby, he began to talk to me straightforwardly and candidly. He told me he had just been visited by a congressional delegation. He smiled slyly as he told me that he had succeeded in running them off. They had entered his room together, immediately thanking him for his service. He had cut them off in midsentence, saying: “Don’t thank me for my service because I’m conflicted over that. You can thank me for my sacrifice which you can plainly see.” The entire delegation departed the room rather swiftly.

Today, it is crucial to listen to that less-than-1-percent of us who have gone into harm’s way on behalf of the other 99 percent. It is crucial because the country is perched on the edge of a dangerous new Cold War, potentially more military deployments to western Asia, and a looming battle in the South China Sea. This is to say nothing of the growing likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons, from Korea to Ukraine, and of a Congress dead-set on unraveling the only successful diplomacy in several years, the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Does our nation’s ever-increasing militarization cause abuses of power, as almost every one of our Founders warned it would? Could our massive and costly counter-terrorism efforts be counterproductive? Do mass surveillance, indefinite detention, torture, ceaseless war and the expenditure of a trillion-plus dollars every year for national security, help or hurt our real security? If we always look forward and never backward, are we doomed to repeat history’s most serious mistakes? Could we be sleepwalking right into World War III?

What if we could ask the hard questions of someone like World War II General Dwight Eisenhower, architect of the Normandy landings and our 34th President? In January 1961, Ike presciently tried to warn us about the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex, now more accurately called a “global merchant of death.” He also expressed grave misgivings about nuclear weapons and the decision to use them in 1945 against Japan. Strange thoughts for a five-star general — unless we stop to think about the pinpoint accuracy of his remarks about the Complex and the almost religious intensity of his dislike for weapons of mass destruction. Truth about war more often emanates from the warrior than the non-warrior. We needn’t wonder why.

What advice might America’s veterans of the First World War give us? In 1918, at the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month, the armistice for the “war to end all wars” was signed in Compiègne, France. The date and specific timing were carefully chosen as a lasting symbol of that goal to end war for all time. While this eleventh day of November is still commemorated as “Armistice Day” in most countries, in 1954 the name and focus were shifted in the U.S. to “Veterans Day.” Would the WWI doughboys be disappointed in our having relinquished that lofty goal? Have we conceded that we will be locked in perpetual war for the foreseeable future, war with its insatiable consumption and waste of lives, treasure and the environment?

This Nov. 11, ask a veteran what he or she thinks about all this. Ask them the hard questions. You might be surprised by their answers.

Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel, was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He teaches national security affairs at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Wilkerson is scheduled to speak at Armistice Day events in the Twin Cities, including during a forum at Hamline University at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 10, where he will be joined by the Rev. Chris Antal, a former U.S. Army chaplain in Afghanistan.

Truth about war more often emanates from the warrior than the non-warrior. We needn’t wonder why.

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