I said I might post more about the veteran. I’d like today to write some about my own veteran’s experience with a particular group of vets. A few months ago, looking for a way to stay active after retirement, I began looking into the subject organization. I liked a number of things about it: that its members were mostly veterans, that it was non-partisan, and that it was affiliated with a larger organization called Human Rights First, which meant that although it was for veterans, it involved other citizens too. As of now, the big three issues for VFAI are the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqi and Afghani nationals who worked with U.S. forces, immigrants and refugees in general, and anti-Muslim bigotry (which VFAI prefers to the more common term “Islamophobia”). It took me a little while to get my head around these issues, since none had been on the top of my list of concerns, but I came to think that the VFAI positions made sense, and also that the issues were emblematic of some others affecting the country and the world. One of these is the question of how vets will contribute to society after leaving the service. Just what can we contribute? I think that the VFAI “big three” all relate to what I recently heard ADM Stavridis call the “inchoate sense” abroad in the U.S. and elsewhere that we need to wall of the rest of the world in order to prosper and protect ourselves. I think this impulse is wrong on a number of levels. Take the SIV program. If we deny aid to people who have worked with us in the past, who is ever going to want to work with us again, except for money, and that kind of loyalty goes to the highest bidder and may not be there when, as Hemingway says, there are chips that are down? If we’ve learned one thing over the past 15 years, it is that you don’t win in a counterinsurgency or counter-terrorism campaign without local allies. You also need to go in with your own trained translators and experts, preferably ones who know about military operations as much as about language and culture. These are exactly the people who would come into the U.S. (after a lot of checks) under the SIV program, if it is revived. I know an Iraqi man, a former translator, who came into the country on an SIV and is now a U.S. citizen. He says he’d go back if we needed him. I believe him, and I think others in his situation would feel the same way. People coming in under the SIV program are likely to be some of the most patriotic you’d ever meet. Alongside practical concerns, there is the ethical question: fulfilling our obligations, helping people who risked their lives for us. Many of them remain at risk for as long as the U.S. denies them entry.
Since I signed on for VFAI, I’ve been in several Congressional offices talking to staffers and the representatives , done some community organizing, and written a piece for the VFAI website. One of the reasons this rather unaccustomed activity feels right to me is the caliber of people I met when VFAI got a number of us together for training and some visits to “the Hill” in Washington. These were people not expecting to be deferred to just because they were veterans, nor looking for kudos. They were veterans from all over the country who wanted to keep serving. I think many missed, like me, the purposefulness and comradeship of military life. I know that I’ve rarely, if ever, liked a group of strangers so much. It also looks like we may have done some good in moving SIV legislation forward.
I know that not all veterans feel as we do. Some of them embrace the narrow nationalism that is close to xenophobia. I think we can do better than that. America isn’t just about guarding our borders. We welcome others whenever we can. Few of us would be here now if this were not the case. Properly understood, I think that military service should broaden the range of your humanity, of your empathy and understanding of all people, not narrow it. Nobility and generosity ought to be part of the veteran’s creed. I’m glad and honored to be associated with a group of vets who are trying to live up to these ideals. The VFAI vets in NY are planning some events. I plan to post about them as they come up.
Publication day for Soldiers and Civilization is 15 May, although some people and a few libraries already have their copies. I’ll be posting about readings, signings etc. shortly. In some ways, my activities with VFAI lie close to the central concerns of the book, which is how soldiers contribute to civilization, and not just as trigger-pullers.
Happy M-Day to all you mothers!