Friday Letter for November 11, 2016

– Guest Editor Terence Hsiao

Tomorrow is the day we set aside to honor our veterans, we have the privilege of serving 121 of them on campus. We all know a veteran. The one I know best is my father, he joined the US Army before he became a citizen, having immigrated to the US from China as a teenager. When I was a child he would tell me stories of his service, one of which involved meeting my mother while he was occupying her country.

Military service was once common because of the draft, today’s veterans are a rare breed. We know studying abroad is an unusual privilege — last year about 300,000 students studied abroad — in contrast fewer than 200,000 citizens enlisted in the military. Why do they make that choice? We have been a nation at war for the last 15 years in a struggle that is likely to span generations. Enlisting means giving up the freedom, family time and opportunities the rest of us enjoy; it means  placing the needs of the nation over one’s own and it means risking the loss of friends, one’s own physical and mental health and even one’s own life. Why have our veterans made that choice? It certainly isn’t the money, last year an E-1 recruit earned $16,824, his boot camp Sergeant made $28,685. Every veteran joined for their own reasons, the veterans I know joined for reasons of idealism, service to country, self-improvement and family tradition. The military tradition they follow is one of values, discipline, teamwork, sacrifice, service, honor, progress, and respect for others.

Higher education is often contrasted to the military, stereotypically focusing on the individual rather than the team, peace rather than force, research over practice and innovation over tradition. It’s a false dichotomy, the US military is arguably America’s most progressive and service oriented institution.

As a society we’ve struggled to be inclusive. The military was racially integrated well before the Civil Rights Act. It was a struggle. In the Vietnam era there were race riots on the USS Kitty Hawk and numerous other racial incidents that reflected the tensions within our society. Rather than minimizing or avoiding those issues the military took them on, with a sustained focus on what we now call “diversity”; the fruit of that ongoing effort is probably the most successful example one can find of large scale social change in American society.

The military is forward looking and faces reality head-on as demonstrated by the Pentagon’s Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Directive which, among other things, calls for the military to address national security threats based on “actionable science”.

The military upholds American values. When pressed to employ interrogation techniques that the Nazis practiced (and were successfully persecuted for during the Nuremberg trials), i.e. torture, the US military refused, citing the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The CIA proved to be less committed to upholding our values.

When we think of the military it is easy to focus on destructive force, on coercion, on power rather than cooperation and building bridges. Our military and those who serve in it take as much pride in their role in humanitarian relief, such as the work done to halt the Ebola epidemic, to help the Philippines recover from Typhoon Haiyan and the Haitians from the 2010 earthquake as they do in operations like the one that brought Osama Bin Laden to justice. The value of these efforts and the way in which our military conducts itself are incalculable.

As I mentioned, my father met my mother while he was occupying her country. The country was Germany, and it was occupied because it had gone down a long, dark road of division, demonization, vindictiveness, lawlessness and violence that caused immeasurable destruction and damage, not only to Germany, but to the entire world. The United States helped bring that nightmare to an end and helped Germany rebuild, not only physically, but spiritually and morally. Although there were ample reasons to treat Germany vindictively, we did not. We followed our highest ideals though Germany had been our bitterest enemy.

Our military embodies those values, the veterans among us have fought, sacrificed and died to uphold and protect those values. Veteran’s Day and honorary halftime ceremonies at football games and “thank you for your service” are an inadequate response to the commitment our veterans have made as citizens.

If you are not a veteran and have the chance, pick up and read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. For those of you who are more cinematically inclined, the movie is due out next week.

To be worthy of the veterans among us, we need to play our role as citizens in upholding American values. As John Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

If you haven’t gone down to our Veterans Resource Center, located on the lower level of CC1, today would be a good opportunity to meet some of our veterans there.

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