11 November 2005

Martinmas and Veteran's Day

Before the Americans invented Thanksgiving, but after the Celts had vanished as an overtly practiced religion with harvest festivals like Samhain, European's celebrated the harvest season at Martin's Mass (later shortened to Martimas) according to Cosmo Doogood's Urban Almanac. (Ironically, Thanksgiving itself was a holiday embraced by the same Puritans who felt it was a sin to celebrate Christmas and Catholic Saint's Days like Martinmas.) Officially in honor of St. Martin of Tours, a medieval French bishop, Martinmas was celebrated on November 11. People "celebrated harvesting and wine making, it became a day for feasting and celebration. A goose was often roasted for the occassion."

After World War I, it became Armistice Day, which the world naiively believed has been a war that would end all wars. In 1954, around the same time that Congress added the "under God" language to the Pledge of Allegiance and starting putting "In God We Trust" on coins in a Cold War wave of theo-patriotism, it was rechristened "Veteran's Day" in the United States, to honor Veteran's of World War II and other wars as well.

While I don't remember many Veteran's Day celebrations growing up or before I had kid's in school, despite the fact that my father was a (peacetime) Veteran, both the Denver Public Schools and the Post Office, as well as the banks, observe it today.

This is just as well. The harvest is outside the experience of 98% of Americans these days, goosemeat is virtually absent from the American diet, and alcohol remains a divisive subject more than a half a century after the official end of prohibition. War veterans, in contrast, are increasingly abundant. In the late 1980s, the VFW (Veteran's of Foreign Wars) was an obsolete organization well on its way to vanishing from the national scene. Now, it has hundreds of thousands, if not milliions of new potential members.

We have Memorial Day to remember the more than 2,000 who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush's current wars. Now is as good a time as any to recognize the 15,000+ living wounded from this war, and the hundreds of thousands who have been forever changed by it. As in every war, some men (and this time, some women) will distinguish themselves in their service and go on to distinguished public and private service later in life. Also, as in every war, some men (and this time, some women) will be ruined by this war, and end up as dangerous people, on the verge of cracking from post-traumatic stress, or on skid row, self-medicating with alcohol by day, and sleeping on the streets at night. The current Secretary of Veterans Affairs acknowledges that there are 200,000 homeless veterans in the United States right now, including 500 from the still pending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As this happens, the GOP is trying to shut down the VA Hospital system (left anyone discover that publicly run health care can work well), and is being none to generous with those it no longer needs because their war fighting days are over. Who hasn't heard of a case of some poor disabled Veteran having his final paycheck docked by the Department of Defense for ridiculous charges like equipment damaged or abandoned in a firefight, or food eaten while in a military hospital recovering from wounds inflicted by some anonymous roadside bomb. Also: "The department faced controversy earlier this year when VA officials told Congress that it had vastly underestimated how much money it would need to take care of veterans. It had based budget numbers on needs before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars started, and failed to adjust the numbers later."

While we have an obligation as a society to leave no one destitute, we have a special obligation to those who put their lives on the line for our nation. A large share of those helped by Mayor Hickenlooper's ten year plan to end homelessness in Denver will be Veterans. It is good that our local politicans are stepping up to the plate to meet their needs. It is not right, however, that these men were abandoned by the federal government they risked their lives (and over gave up their mental well being) to serve.

The free market values you for what you can contribute to the economy now. Period. It does that job very well. Those who make themselves indispensible parts of our nation's economic engines are rewarded handsomely. There has never been such a great time to be rich in America -- taxes on the rich are at record lows, the exposure of the rich to responsibility for their actions has been diminished to levels not seen is seventy years or so, and the opportunities to spend that money are limitless. There have been more mansions built in the last decade than there were during the most prosperous decade of the Robber Barons. But, there are plenty of people who, sometimes as a result of their own actions, but more often, simply due to the natural life cycle or events beyond their control, cannot currently contribute much to the economy. There are well over a hundred million people who aren't in the work force at all. And, the free market, as a natural part of its logic, provides nothing for them.

Families and savings can help mitigate the logic of the free market. They can provide for stay at home parents, children and retirees. But, neither is a perfect solution. Plenty of people fall through the cracks of these rudimentary efforts to overcome the market's natural tendencies. Society must take responsibility for them, sometimes specifically, and sometimes as part of larger redesigns of the free market system that incorporate everyone, like Social Security. People like George W. Bush don't understand this societal obligation. Fortunately, the American public does. A good place to begin closing some of the gaps in our social safety net would be with Veteran's. After all, in many cases it is our fault, as a nation that sent them to war, that they are in the shape they are in now, even if this isn't always easy to prove in court a law. If we end up also benefiting some people who proudly served our country, but can manage on their own, well, I can think of many people less worthy who receive windfalls in our society.

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