Wednesday, July 04, 2012
On July 4th: Veterans By the Numbers, and a Grand Old Flag
I was at a minor-league ballgame in Tucson last night, on the eve of the Fourth of July, and was surprised when the 10,000 people at Kino Stadium were asked to "honor" the "active-duty and retired" military veterans in the crowd.
Yay for them. But hang on a minute, I thought. In jingoistic circles, it's become increasingly popular to exhort people to jump to their feet to salute "our veterans." But we seem to be forgetting (not just at this ballgame, but elsewhere) that our "military veterans" are mostly not active-duty and retired people on the government payroll.
I wish we would start better defining what we mean by "veterans." The fact is, most military veterans are not "retired," that is, receiving lifetime pensions from the government after being on the active-duty military payroll for at least 20 years.
Rather, the vast majority of living veterans are those who honorably did their service, usually at extraordinarily low pay, and then returned to civilian life after their hitches were up. In general, unless they were injured in combat, those veterans receive no benefits from the government. They don't even quality for treatment in veterans' hospitals unless they are flat-out destitute, with no other access to medical care. I think we're entitled to a free flag at our death, is all. Fair enough; that's the deal.
In 2010, according to the Veterans Administration, there were 21.8 million living veterans of the armed forces in the United States. Of those, 1.9 million were retired after having spent at least 20 years in the military -- and are receiving veterans pensions that totaled, in the 2011 fiscal year, $51 billion, not counting other benefits such as health care.
The rest of our veterans -- that is, 19.9 million of them -- are just men and women who were in the service, during World War II and Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf wars, and in peacetime as well, who did their duty and were honorably discharged and went on to normal civilian lives.
My concern here is that in professionalizing the military, which we have done, we've lost the grounding we once had in the idea of military service that once included the general population.
The jingoists have forgotten that many, many Americans served and then went quietly about their lives. They don't require public "honoring" -- but they still should at least count when we talk about veterans.
And speaking of ballgames, when did it become common to have the crowd stand at honor and sing "God Bless America" at the 7th inning stretch? I felt like I was at a religious tent revival and imagined that awful tub of lard Kate Smith in a star-spangled white gown, bellowing into a microphone while jack-booted American Legionnaires stand by with truncheons to whack those who don't obediently remove their caps. When did God, baseball and Kate Smith join up? Nietzsche said God is dead; I know Kate Smith is dead, and I suspect baseball is at least dying since it became patriotic audience-participation rather than sport.
You know what I wish our National Anthem was? "You're a Grand Old Flag," by George M. Cohan, which goes:
"You're a grand old flag,
You're a high-flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave;
You're the emblem of
The land I love,
The home of the free and the brave
Every heart beats true
'Neath the red, white and blue
Where there's never a boast or brag;
So should auld acquaintance be forgot
Keep your eye on the grand old flag!"
Happy July Fourth!