I spent my fall break in our nation's capital, sponsored by Princeton's Pace Center for Civic Engagement, visiting congressional lobbies, vocational employment centers, and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where I saw, firsthand, those who had experienced the casualties of war. Eating in the hospital cafeteria, I sat among masses of amputees, the people who actually comprise the looming, abstract statistics we hear always on the news.
These are the people we half-acknowledge. We hear about soldiers who get maimed, who are sidelined by our legal system, who fall through the cracks and end up living on the street. But we sigh, mutter "what a shame," and then generally move on with our lives. This is largely due to the manner in which the wars of the 21st century have been waged. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are extremely different from the Vietnam War and World War II, in the crucial fact that they have not depended on a draft to fill the ranks; as such, they have directly engaged a much smaller percentage of the population. Throughout the week in Washington D.C., the thing that we heard over and over is that the American public does not pay attention to veterans, that there is a dearth of dialogue, because the issues that plague veterans are often deemed irrelevant by the average American.
I believe that this stance is wholly inconsistent with a humanitarian mindset. The moral principle that should compel us to care about veterans, even if no one in our families has ever been affiliated with the military, is the same one that underscores how white people need to care about racism, men need to care about sexism, and straight people need to care about LGBT rights.
I am writing this on November 12, the day after Veterans Day. Yesterday, Princeton's campus was quiet. A small slam poetry gathering and a service in the university chapel -- attended almost exclusively by ROTC members -- were all that set it apart from any other day. I heard no conversations about veterans. I asked a good deal of friends and acquaintances if they knew what holiday it was, and a considerable portion of them had no clue. This lack of on-campus attention to veterans reflects our nation's greater apathy about the rights of members of our armed forces.
From conversations I've had, I know that many people consider veterans' rights unimportant, because they believe that the wars America is engaged in are unjust. They feel that veterans are complicit, that they are the ones enabling these grand conflicts, and that, if it weren't for them, we wouldn't be in Afghanistan today. I used to think like this. In some ways, I still do; I'm generally a pacifist and I think that war is something that should only be undertaken in the most dire of circumstances, and that more could have been done prior to deploying troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. But there is a grave irony in opposing war on the basis of human rights, citing excessive imperialism and America's rampant interventionism, while ignoring the human rights of our fellow citizens -- members of our military.
When I was younger, I learned to oppose war. Growing up, my mother brought me to anti-war rallies and peace marches. Later, I helped found a pro-peace club in my middle school. However, it sometimes seems like organizations that identify as "pro-peace," that structure themselves around humanitarian causes, somehow morph into groups that are "anti-veteran." Unfortunately, some of the rallies that I went to used propaganda to make it seem as if war and veterans are inextricably linked, that they comprise a single issue. The trope of soldiers as warhawks, waving American flags, donning garish colors, yelling Americentric slurs, was something that years of attending "pro-peace" rallies had etched into my mind. Thus, the idea that I could simultaneously oppose war and support the rights of veterans was something that eluded me -- until recently.
I believe that there is a way to try and keep our government accountable without taking out our resentment towards war on our soldiers. I agree that, although big nation-states are the ones directly calling the shots, soldiers are indeed partially responsible for what happens in war, and should be held accountable for their actions: horrors like rape and religious desecration in the context of war are always unacceptable. Soldiers always need to abide by a moral standard; it certainly is dangerous to allow people to simply say, "I was just following orders." But I also think it is wrong to try and use this rationale to deny members of our military due rights and respect. It is hypocritical to oppose war on humanitarian grounds, while ignoring the humanity of our soldiers.
During my trip, I had the pleasure of having a long conversation with an Afghanistan war veteran, Cameron Kerr. Cameron had one of his legs blown off when he stepped on an IED, or an improvised explosive device, during his tour abroad. As a veteran who experienced firsthand the atrocities of war, Cameron explained to me that, in his opinion, the vast majority of veterans are not war hawks, that most veterans struggle with the same moral questions that many of us consider when we talk about things like "just wars." I learned how many veterans are high school graduates, who, in the face of desperate circumstance, simply join the military out of economic necessity.
At the beginning of our trip, my group members and I were standing the lobby of a grocery store when we encountered an ex-Marine. He lashed out at one of my fellow group members after she offered a, "Thank you for your service." Throughout our trip, we tried to make sense of why someone would respond to a well-intentioned thank-you with such hostility. What we gathered from talking to a lot of other veterans is that the Marine probably responded so vehemently, because frequently, people say "Thank you for your service" half-heartedly. Another veteran with whom we spoke insisted that there are things way more meaningful that we can do in lieu of simply muttering a one liner when we see someone in uniform, such as fostering dialogue and trying to hold our government accountable.
Veterans' rights is a bipartisan issue; your political beliefs should not impede you from caring about the humanity of those who serve our nation. Especially with thousands of soldiers coming home from Afghanistan in the coming years, it is essential that we ensure that this minority is sufficiently cared for. I believe that the best way to support our troops is to keep our government accountable, to ensure that the Department of Defense and other government organizations are working proactively to ameliorate rampant issues that affect soldiers, like a lack of effective health care, stigma surrounding things like post-traumatic stress, and sexual assault in the military.
In many respects, veterans are currently invisible to the American public. Even if you believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should never have started, that does not mean that you should ignore the humanity of soldiers. Veterans' rights are human rights. When we oppose war, primarily on humanitarian grounds, but avert our eyes and ignore the plight of soldiers, we are being hypocritical.
We can only better conditions of those who decide to serve if we begin the conversation. Working within the context of the university community, I believe that it's important to consider how few veterans are enrolled at Princeton. According to a 2012 article on BusinessWeek.com, of the nearly 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students at Princeton, only four are veterans -- the smallest number in the Ivy League. If we are a university invested "in the nation's service," to me, it seems inconsistent that Princeton houses such an abysmally low number of members of our military.
Nick Sexton is a freshman at Princeton University, where he writes for the Nassau Weekly, Princeton's weekly culture, news, and arts publication.