10 Hard Truths About War for Veterans Day (and Every Other Day)
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Veterans Day, which Americans celebrate on November 11, was originally called Armistice Day, to commemorate the cessation of fighting in the Great War of 1914-1918. In the United States, the idea that this was “the war to end all wars,” (a phrase coined by H.G. Wells in a pamphlet of that name and echoed by Woodrow Wilson with equal earnestness) was challenged by an outspoken and persecuted peace movement, including poor farmers and black Americans conscripted at disproportionate rates.
Most Americans may have accepted the justification at the war's start, but by the war's end, with a U.S. body count of 117,000 and double that in serious injuries (and 37 million casualties overall on both sides, 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded), the signing of the Armistice by Allies and Germans at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 was met with celebration that it might mean a true “end of war.” In 1919, a year later, Armistice Day was established to celebrate "the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed."
After World War II and the Korean War, and the start of a heated Cold War, it was clear to the government that an armistice and peace were not in sync with the times. In 1954, Congress changed the name of the November 11 holiday to Veterans Day, exchanging peace for celebrating patriotic valor, and the ultimate sacrifice of life, limb and health in battling for one's country.
Today's veterans are survivors of more than a half century of American wars—World War II, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, the 1991 Gulf War (which has never been officially declared over), and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As we celebrate our veterans this week, we would do well to remember the following realities that the public is barely aware of, but veterans know only too well:
1) It took almost 50 years for the government to acknowledge the suffering of more than 200,000 U.S. veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, which the U.S. military used for a decade to defoliate forests and destroy food sources in Vietnam. Despite higher incidences of cancer, neurological, digestive, skin, lung and heart disorders along with miscarriages and birth defects, the DoD denied any linkage of exposure and disease, and disability claims, which veterans initiated in 1977 were mostly denied. By 1993 only 400 veterans exposed to Agent Orange had been granted some compensation.
Class action suits against companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical settled out of court for small amounts. After much advocacy by veterans and their supporters, the 1991 Agent Orange Act was passed, allowing the VA to declare specific conditions "presumptive" to Agent Orange. This summer the list was expanded to include B cell leukemias, such as hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease. Still, after five decades, compensation is small with the vast majority of awards at 20 percent or $243 montly.
2) Almost a third of the 700,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War suffer from a profound physiological disorder called Gulf War Illness (formerly Gulf War Syndrome). For almost 20 years, the DoD and VA insisted that psychological stress alone was the cause of the fatigue, mood disorders, cognition and memory problems, and disorders of every physical system as well as birth defects of veterans' children. To date, some 11,000 veterans have died from the illness, and most survivors continue to suffer chronic symptoms. In 2008, the Gulf War Research Advisory Committee (RAC) reported what veterans have known too well—that wartime toxins, not stress, caused profound physical illness in almost 300,000 veterans of Desert Storm.