On the day World War II ended, our family was in Niagara Falls; and that evening the colored floodlights played on the falls for the first time in four years.
The International Rainbow Bridge over the Niagara gorge was jammed with ecstatic, cheering crowds. For thousands of families with sons and husbands still overseas, it was the happiest day of their lives.
The military demobilized as fast as possible. In Europe, soldiers with the most “points,” determined by the length and type of service, were the first to be shipped home. They were greeted by thousands of cheering civilians; and there were ticker tape parades, and free train or bus rides home for men and women in uniform.
Never since those years of 1945 to 1947 has our nation been so united in gratitude to its military. We’d defeated two powerful empires simultaneously on opposite sides of the globe, and felt we could do anything. The passage of the GI Bill in 1944 made it possible for returning veterans to attend college, start businesses and families, and buy homes – probably the greatest social leveler in our history.
That war was also arguably the last one in which our goals were so clear. The subsequent rise of the Soviet Union and the worm in our national apple introduced by Senator Joseph McCarthy made godless Communism an existential threat. The Korean War, which we fought to a standstill, was termed a “police action,” and justified as a preventive to the so-called domino effect of spreading totalitarianism. The same justification was used to support our disastrous adventure into Vietnam a few years later. The Iraq War was more invasion than war – and our attempt to spread American-style democracy, as in Afghanistan, has been unsuccessful with unclear goals and terribly troubling outcomes.
The treatment of recent veterans has reflected our attitudes toward the causes for which they fought; and the post-traumatic maladies from which thousands of them suffer may reflect the same ambivalence. Time was we couldn't do enough for our veterans. That’s still essentially true, but our efforts at reintegration, rehabilitation, and healing of wounds both physical and psychic too often fall short.
Before we put any more of our greatest treasure – our young people – in harm’s way, as the saying goes, it seems only reasonable to demand clearer justification from, and more open debate among, our national leaders.