I wasn’t expecting to stand on the front lines of the Veteran’s Day parade yesterday. But that’s what happened. I left the office for lunch, and a formation of Vietnam vets stopped me at the curb. They were followed by a high school marching band from Michigan City, Indiana.
I saw an infantryman swallow a hot dog in Madison Square Park. I saw two kids from the Morris High School ROTC fiddle with a digital camera and swat each other flirtatiously. I saw a van for the handicapped meander down the parade route with a single passenger inside, his forehead pressed to the glass, his face obscured by the tinted windows.
A matronly woman at the police barricade whooped every time a soldier went by. She whooped and flicked an American flag in the gray weather. Her whooping was loud and indiscriminate. One of the marchers, a bearded man in a camouflage jacket, saw her, threw his fists in the air, and whooped. There was a lot of whooping, there at the police barricade. I didn’t quite understand what it meant. I saw banners, insignia, and tassels, but I couldn’t tell what they stood for. The only clear message at the parade was, Here are our soldiers.
The soldiers looked very much at ease.
At one point I stood next to a vending machine for the New York Post. Its cover quoted Barack Obama’s speech on Tuesday at Fort Hood: “This is a time of war. And yet these Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, on American soil.”
I get my news from the Times. I think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mostly as questions of national policy. Should we send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan? Can we trust Pakistan to safeguard its nuclear weapons? Have we done enough to rebuild Iraq as a Western-style democracy? Hanging over these questions is an icky awareness that we never should have gone to Iraq in the first place, and for the past 8 years our strategy in Afghanistan has been at cross-purposes with our country’s best interests. I don’t much like the wars. I don’t believe we should be fighting them—at least, not in anything like their present form.
So the whooping—echoed by spectators up and down the parade route—caught me off guard. I believed in it right away. I saw people my own age, men and women, walking under the banner of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I saw children in the back of an Army jeep, beaming as they waved to the crowds. The people in the parade have dedicated their lives to putting our country’s decisions into action. They seemed proud. I felt proud of them.
How do we even begin to talk about the wars when A) serving in the military is honorable and good, but B) the wars we’re fighting are wrong, or at best poorly managed? That a gap exists between these two realities is a national tragedy.
The parade celebrated something we don’t put into words. Words are for newspapers, pundits, and press conferences at the Rose Garden. Words are egoistic and literal. The parade was something else—something collective and ineffable. It was our shared morality on display, a common set of instincts about what is right, and what is wrong, that gives 300 million of us an identity.
We tell ourselves stories about how the wars are going, and what they mean. But those stories are just a speck on a ribbon of humanity that unfurled on 5th Avenue yesterday.
The parade shamed me. I was reduced to cheers.