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Patricia Hynes & Frances Crowe: War, regret, redemption

With Veterans Day, we are reminded how much gratitude and respect we owe those veterans who have the moral courage to scrutinize wars and their part in them. They are vital voices of patriotism in the face of their country’s militarized budget, politics and foreign policy.

War profiteering in World War I was mammoth; and no one nailed the profiteers and racketeers so head-on as one of the most highly decorated Marines in history, straight-talking Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler. War is the oldest, most profitable racket, he declared — one in which billions of dollars are made for millions of lives destroyed. Of the estimated $52 billion cost of World War I, industry war profiteers pocketed nearly one-third. More than 21,000 new American millionaires and billionaires emerged from the human ashes of the war, according to Butler’s 1935 book, “War is a Racket.” Meanwhile, the federal government was mired in post-war debt — a debt paid for by working people’s taxes. During the Depression and Dust Bowl era, Smedley staunchly advocated for homeless and unemployed veterans who had not yet received promised bonuses from the federal government.

George McGovern flew 35 high-risk missions in World War II, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross, in a war he felt we had no choice but to enter. This veteran’s 1972 candidacy for president centered on ending the Vietnam War, a war, as he saw it, we had no right to enter. McGovern had no secret plan for peace, only a public one, he said. “From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation, come home, America,” he pleaded in accepting his party’s nomination.

Camillo “Mac” Bica, a Vietnam War veteran, wrote in an article titled “Don’t thank me for my service,” for truth-out.org in June, that he does not want to be thanked for five reasons. In the service, he lost his innocence in witnessing “the horrible and unnecessary deaths of good friends.” Being thanked for military service reminds him of what he would like to forget but cannot — that he killed innocent people. Words of thanks reinforce his belief that many people haven’t a clue about the reality of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan and remind him that many citizens were either “apathetic” or even supported these wars, but did not have to fight them, avoided fighting in them and did nothing to end them.

Bica would prefer to be thanked for his 45 years following discharge from the Marines in which he has worked for human rights, social justice and to end “the insanity of war.” He invites those who want to support military members and veterans and express meaningful patriotism to “do what is truly in the interest of the nation and those victimized by war” — make demands for a more just and peaceful world.

Chuck Palazzo at the age of 17 was stationed at Da Nang, where he followed orders and sprayed the herbicide Agent Orange, made by Monsanto, Dow Chemical and other corporations with an extremely toxic dioxin in their speeded-up manufacturing process. The former Marine sold his software company in 2008 and returned to Da Nang, where he works as a member of Veterans for Peace to build small farms for Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and their families. In December, Palazzo told a reporter for a Vietnamese news source, Than Nien News, that he cried when first visiting child victims of Agent Orange — from “the pain of seeing a deformed body caused by himself more than 40 years ago.” He and other veterans are working tirelessly to support the still unsuccessful Vietnamese plaintiffs seeking justice in American courts for three generations of injuries from chemical warfare. “For many veterans, this is a moral and ethical issue,” he wrote in an August piece for the Global Times, of the toxic contamination of living environments, land mines and unexploded ordnance left behind by the war.

In a 2011 interview on National Public Radio, Panayiota Bertzikis, a Coast Guard veteran, described the retaliation against victims for reporting sexual assault. She was raped by a fellow Coast Guard member, given no medical services, made to continue working with her rapist, and ultimately dismissed from the Coast Guard as unfit for duty. The source of her “unfitness” for duty was the trauma she suffered from both the assault and her futile attempts to seek justice from a stonewalling commander who told her to “shut up and leave his office.” Bertzihis is one of 17 plaintiffs in a class action suit filed Feb. 15, 2011, in Federal District Court in Virginia against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The lawsuit charges them with failure to protect service members from repeated rape and sexual assault in the military and failure to investigate complaints and to prosecute and punish perpetrators. She founded the Military Rape Crisis Center in Cambridge.

Iraq War veteran Tyler Boudreau of Northampton cuts to the heart of combat stress suffered by hundreds of thousands of recent war veterans in his book “Packing Inferno,” where he writes, “It comes from witnessing, and participating in, extreme violence.” Combat stress is not fundamentally a psychological disorder, he asserts; it is from the moral injury of fighting in war. “Whether or not one believes the cause of war is good,” he writes, “the violence will always be bad for the soul.” Veterans like these are experts on what the physical, sexual, mental and moral violence of war does to the human spirit. We honor them.

Pat Hynes is president of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts. Frances Crowe is a veteran peace activist.

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