Veterans' Day, 2007
Deuteronomy 10: 12-13, 17-21.
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the "War to End All Wars" ended. The day was officially commemorated beginning in 1926, originally being called “Armistice Day”. In 1954, President Eisenhower changed the name to “Veterans’ Day”, to honor those who had also served in World War II and Korea. Since then it has expanded again to include all those who have served in the military. It is one of two Official holidays for this purpose, Memorial Day being the other.
Interestingly enough, the day we now honor as a secular, non-church holiday also has a religiously military meaning, for November 11 is the day of the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, one of the earliest Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Saints. He lived and died in the 4th century. He’s worth remembering because his legend includes this story;
Once, While Martin was still a soldier (for the Roman Empire) at Amiens, France he experienced the vision that became the most-repeated story about his life. He was at the gates of the city of Amiens with his soldiers when he met a scantily dressed beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night he dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clad me." (Sulpicius, ch 2).
It strikes me, in light of the Deuteronomy passage I read today, that this story of Martin, whose feast day coincidentally is the day we now honor our military, may be the way to navigate our way through some of the uncertainty we feel about war. Gone are the days of clear purpose. In World War II the mission was clear, and defense of the US was the primary task. We had been clearly attacked, we were clearly fighting against foes that would not only destroy our way of life materially; we were, in Hitler, fighting against evil itself. After the war, the best of our character was shown, when our military was then used in the Marshall plan, delivering food and other material to Germany, Italy, Japan and the destroyed areas of our allies. Since then, I would argue that there has not been a clear focus of why we fight. The reasons have been vague, politically motivated, or we have fallen into fights because of a lack of creativity in negotiation.
None of these reasons matter for the soldiers who have fought and died in these wars, police actions and skirmishes. Their bravery has been undimmed, their sense of duty has never flagged. Their country has asked them to fight, and they have, no matter the reasons. They are sent, and they go.
But I know that in some cases, the soldiers who have fought would have much preferred a clear sense of moral purpose. Sometimes, they have had it. Sometimes they haven’t. They would have preferred a plain logical moral reason to fight or to be deployed. They dream of a modern American equivalent of St. Martin’s hacking his cloak in half to clothe the beggar.
They wish to serve God in the way that God is characterized in the Deuteronomy passage:
17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy is the last book of the Torah, the holiest books of the Jewish faith. It is the deathbed speech of Moses, their leader and creator of their nation, and they are going to go into the land to which God promised Abraham, Jacob and Isaac; the Promised Land. It is clear that the Israelites are going to have to fight in many battles, because the Promised Land is not empty. The land which they have been given is occupied by other tribes, who have lived there for generations. But here, Moses is telling the Israelites that their national character is not just military might and skill, their identity isn’t just a matter of victory and defeat. Instead, the people of God will be judged by God on how they provide justice. They will be God’s people as measured by how charitable they are to the people they are about to force off the land they have been promised. And that this is the expectation not just of Moses, but of God, who brought them through the desert, fed them and freed them from slavery.
If we are to be a nation of God, then, we are to be judged along the same standards. If we are a nation of God, then we too are judged by how we treat the strangers. If we too are a nation of God, then we too are judged by how we exercise justice in the name of the weak, meek and poor. Jesus said that all the laws and the sayings of the prophets can be hung on one concept. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
If executing justice was our foreign policy, we would still have enemies. If loving the stranger, providing them food and clothing was our domestic policy, we would still be reviled in quarters of the world. We know this is true because we have done these things, and have seen the responses. Food, clothing, protection, justice have been delivered by our military before. Where we do it now, we are respected by the people we have sought to serve, and reviled by those who should have been taking care of this for their people, but haven’t.
And because we have been hated, we still need a military with which to protect ourselves as a people. Today is the day we honor those who have served this country. But we too often have honored them after we have sent them to do errands that have not been a reflection of this country at its best. Too often now, we have not used these brave men and women in ways that allow them to feel proud about their service. Yes, they can be, should be, proud that they answered the nation’s call to serve. It is that motivation to serve one’s country that makes us proud to know them, to have them as our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters.
We see them as our best and brightest. They serve with their grandparents, their children, their families in mind—they do not serve because there is the possibility of riches or land taken from the defeated as so many armies through history have done. They serve because they love what is best about this nation, and wish to preserve it. They wish to preserve the nations’ identity as the place of refuge for the poor, and the oppressed. They seek to defend the ideal America, the one of religious freedom, of economic opportunity not to be rich, but to simply have enough. The one that exercises justice humbly and with mercy and grace. The one that welcomes the stranger, and doesn’t just give them food, shelter and clothing, but opens up its heart and welcomes them as one of its own.
Those who serve and have served in our military serve an ideal America. That ideal America reflects the words of Moses from Deuteronomy. That ideal America respects and expects them to be the sort of military that finds ways to hack it’s cloak for the poor and the oppressed. The nation and the military expect the best of each other. Let us never forget what the best of each other is, in the name of God.