It’s Veteran’s Day in countries that had reason to celebrate the Armistice of WWI, and my FB feed is awash with American flags. So was the highway as we drove home yesterday. There are “thank a veteran” messages everywhere. It kind of bothers me (in an entirely predictable way) because it all seems so oversimplified. I’d bet most soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines don’t join up just in order to defend democracy – I’m sure some do, but I’m also pretty sure that every current and former member of the military services has a unique mix of reasons for enlisting. Those who sign up voluntarily do have this in common: that they accept the risk of grave peril and the near-certainty of sacrifices to be made by themselves and their families (aside from a few very special snowflakes who signed up and then exited the service as soon as it became plain there was war coming). But there’s still got to be a fairly substantial cadre of men (and women, in some other countries) who were drafted, whose choices were not “hazard or safety” but “hazard or eat but unknown difficulty” – service or abandoning their country. They deserve to be honored too, because whether voluntarily or not, they did interpose their frail bodies “between their loved home and the war’s desolation”.

I don’t feel that rah-rah jingoism is an adequate tribute to the very real people who made their decisions to serve, or even those who made a decision to serve in other ways. Or those for whom it didn’t feel much like a decision.

I’ve never asked my dad why he enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean conflict, but I strongly suspect it had a lot to do with the fact that the foster system’s benefits run out when you turn 18. That being so, it was probably as good a choice as he could have made but I know it wasn’t easy. He was dark enough to run afoul of segregated facilities while in Georgia in the 1950s, which must have been a shock for a white Northern boy (Dad tans very dark and would have been living mostly outside while in training). Another hint of some of the troubles he faced surfaced when I was in high school, looking at college literature, and realized that West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy are not only good schools, but are free to anyone who can get in; he told me flat out not to apply because “the military is no place for a Jewish girl.” I did call to wish Dad a good Veteran’s day; he thanked me, but seemed unclear on the idea that I’d actually called to talk to him, not Mom. (He’s not much for chatting on the phone.)

I do know exactly why my Uncle Larry enlisted in Vietnam: he was drafted. He was lucky that his ability to type and his having been Bar Mitzvahed got him a job as assistant to the Jewish chaplain; this kept him relatively safe (though he was still in-country during a war, after all) and, given his technical and mechanical aptitudes, probably kept everyone else much safer as well. (Appliances would break themselves in his presence; arming him doesn’t seem like it would have been a good idea.) I think the military training gave him a new idea of his own capabilities and it did feed his lust for travel, but I don’t think he have said later in life that he was glad to have served. We still wonder if, even though he wasn’t in active combat, he might have been exposed to something in those years that resulted decades later in the very rare cancer that killed him.

One of my grandfathers didn’t serve because he was tool old to be drafted, had a new baby, and was in a protected occupation; I don’t know about the others. My husband’s family has stories ranging from a Purple Heart to a Conscientious Objector (which must have required major cojones in WWII).

As an engineer, I’ve worked with enough current and retired military people to know that for some it’s a culture, a way of life, a community, a point of honor or a way of choosing who you want to be; I’ve also worked with enough of them to know there is no one military viewpoint on politics, culture, religion or much of anything else except for that willingness to serve and experience of hardship.

When you join the military you do become part of a unit, and I suppose flag-waving is better than not honoring those who put themselves (or who were put) in harm’s way. But maybe treating service people as individual people, listening to and telling their stories would be more respectful than waving a real or virtual flag.

(Or more places could do what Oregon did, and give veterans the day off.)