Today, I attended the 16th annual War Memorial Wreath-Laying Ceremony at San Diego State University in sunny Southern California. The memorial site was constructed originally in 1996 in order to remember the alumnies who lost their lives in World War II, the Korea and the Vietnam Wars. In the wake of the Afganistan/Iraq War the site assumed a new meaning. For this years ceremony five new names had been engraved in the marble obelisk. The young soldiers had I observed the honoring of five alumni who were killed in the past decade. The official aim of the event was to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during military conflict so that we can experience freedom every day. The speakers included SDSU president Elliot Hirshman and Dixon R. Smith, commander of the Navy Region Southwest. After the event there was a reception at the Veterans House where soldiers, military families, and students had the opportunity to socialize. By attending the ceremony I hoped to get some insights about how the deaths of innocent young men and women and the suffering of their families are justified by those who promote war.
Counter to my prior concerns I felt accepted by the people attending the ceremony although I was only able to communicate with few. I dressed more formally than I usually do and was anxious about my shoes that had not been cleaned for a while. Needless to say that nobody yelled at me for this reason. As a civilian I felt like an outsider. Although I knew that I did not have to comply with the same rules as the military personnel present, I felt strangely intimidated by the uniforms, body postures, and ways of speaking in a command-like voice. The interactions I had with the participants were polite but superficial. Evidently, I had no idea what it meant to be a veteran who felt that he had severed his people well by taking up arms.
Retrospectively I tried to fit in and clapped hands when my personal convictions would have not allowed be to clap. Unconsciously I followed the ritual as far as I could in order to reduce my anxiety of being rejected. When people put their hand over their heart when the national anthem was played I could, however, not follow. I noticed only one man in the crowd who did not do it either; he was part of the SDSU Chamber Choir. My discomfort was in part based on the fact, that I come from Germany, the country where probably half of the soldiers on the memorial have lost their lives. Moreover, in my country I have been a concientous objector refusing military service on ethical grouds. I felt extremely uncomfortable and out of place and therefore did not discuss my political point of view and my origin openly. In California’s number one public university there was no critical voice at all, no students who would have openly questioned the war and its outcomes, or called for mental health services for survivors.
The military, veterans, and the civilian speakers left no doubt about the importance of the army within society. It seemed that the service was perceived as extremely meaningful in the individual soliers lives. In contrast to any civilian job, perhaps with the exception of fire fighters and the police, involvement in the army was associated with ‘courage’, ‘dedication’, and ‘commitment’ that transcended individual interests. In fact, it put the individual life and health at risk in order to achieve a higher common ‘good’. This selflessness was celebrated and expressed through the term ’sacrifice’ which was believed to be necessary in order to maintain freedom in the United States. The grief of the families who lost a loved-one seemed to be alliviated through the belief that the young alumnies did something valuable not only for their country but for the whole world. This was a powerful metaphor called forth by a commander who asserted that the United States and by implication its military is the “greatest force on earth for good”. The greatest concern military personnel and their families may have is that their service is not acknowledged by the general population. “Thank you for your service”. I observed a senior lady approach a marine while uttering the words. This simple but powerful acknowlegement may well be an entry point for effective counseling with veterans.