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The Fourth of July celebrates community, local as well as national. Parades featuring people in uniform — scouts, firefighters and police as well as the military and others — traditionally are a fixture. Military uniforms remind us of the role of war in our history — and our present.
From ancient times, parades have been vital to the reintegration of warriors into society. War is profoundly disruptive and disturbing as well as dangerous. Even the rare man who finds combat invigorating and rewarding is in severe need of an honoring welcome after the killing ends.
Homer, chronicler of the Trojan War, was extremely sensitive to this. The great classic is presented in two parts. “The Iliad” focuses on the fighting and related interplay involving Greeks and Trojans; “The Odyssey” describes the very long voyage home of Greek leader Ulysses and his men. They traverse allegorical geography, struggling to put the horrors of killing, and the dangers of being killed, behind them.
Gen. George S. Patton Jr., a very great American combat leader, was extremely mindful of this dimension. He and Gen. James Doolittle, who led the first air raid on Tokyo, were featured in a special ceremony in the Los Angeles Coliseum after the surrender of Nazi Germany.
Patton celebrated the accomplishments of the U.S. Third Army in the victorious drive across Europe. In honoring his troops, he stressed in particular the 40,000 who lost their lives in that final year of the war. Patton made such statements regularly in the few months remaining until his own death.
Such confirmation is particularly important for warriors representing modern democracies. Our egalitarian ethos and efforts to abide by the rule of law contrast starkly with the traditional martial spirit.
In World War II, Allied troops were often welcomed warmly by peoples liberated from Axis occupation. Understandably, our media gave special emphasis to this dimension. The Korean War created very strong bonds between the United States and the people as well as the very effective military of South Korea. The first Gulf War liberated an oppressed population.
The Vietnam and Iraq wars have been different. During Vietnam, military personnel were often discouraged from discussing the subject with civilians. Opposition to the war became hostility to our own military. There was no collective welcome home. Many middle-aged vets of that war suffer without a Ulysses, troubled — and troublesome.
The Iraq War has evolved differently, without this problem. A recent trip to Washington provided a reminder of the visibility of the uniformed military, especially on public transportation.
However, the constant rotation of personnel back to Iraq is unfair as well as counterproductive. Enormous psychological strains are added to physical dangers, and families suffer heavily. Clearly, our current political leaders are putting their own interests far above the needs of our troops.
July Fourth is not a day for in-depth foreign-policy discussion, but is particularly appropriate for recognizing and honoring veterans, individually as well as collectively, wherever and whenever you find them.
Please also encourage them to run for public office. We won the Cold War in part because members of the “Greatest Generation” who served in the military also served in government. Every U.S. president from Harry Truman through George H.W. Bush was a veteran.
What Washington needs above all is the sort of sensible realism such men and women bring to policy.
(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu.)