Why Making Young School Children Observe Veterans Day Is Problematic

Summary: Encouraging elementary school children to honor and glorify the military without a deeper understanding of militarism and war is simply indoctrination.

As we approach Veterans Day in the United States, many schools across the country will engage in some sort of activities or ceremonies to commemorate this holiday and those to whom it is dedicated. On the face of it, there is nothing inherently wrong with honoring people who have made sacrifices to defend their homeland, but the way we do it in the United States is fundamentally wrong and deeply disturbing, especially when young children are implicated in this.

In recent years it appears as though elementary schools across America have held more special events for Veterans Day. As part of these activities, children are encouraged to thank, honor, and even revere veterans. The basic problem with this is how it is framed and communicated to the children. Are they actually being taught what wars are, and why they are fought? Or are they merely told to thank and admire a veteran for their service? In order to have veterans, there had to have been wars. In order to understand the concept of a veteran, one needs to understand the concept of war. A 7-year-old child in elementary school hardly understands what war is. And if they don’t understand what war is, how can they understand what a veteran is, let alone honoring them in a meaningful way? And even if these children were to understand the basic premise of wars and veterans, how likely are they to actually make sense of this, when it seems as though the vast majority of American adults themselves are unable to do so?

Most Americans believe that the military protects their freedoms and fights for their liberties. But what exactly does that mean in context? How are the liberties of average Americans perpetually at stake? Many Americans would point to threats of terrorism or the prospect of foreign interventions in American affairs. But they seem altogether oblivious to the fact that for well over a hundred years, America itself has been and still is the greatest perpetrator of violence, covert operations, and militaristic interventions in the affairs of other countries. Most of the threats to American liberties from abroad, if they do exist at all, are the results of interventionist foreign policies pursued by American political leaders, corporations, and special interest groups.

Out of the many wars America has been involved in over the last century, only a very few can be characterized as defensive wars to protect the American people. And even those wars (e.g. World War II) brought great economic benefits to American corporations, at the expense of millions of lives and livelihoods of peoples both around the world and here at home. Other examples, such as the Iraq wars, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, or World War I, were all wars which the U.S. entered into on its own volition. These wars, and the vast majority of American-led wars and interventions, were waged mainly for corporate profits and under the guise of either anti-communism or anti-terrorism, but not in actual defense of the life and liberty of the average American.

In 1918, legendary American socialist and trade union organizer Eugene V. Debs characterized wars throughout history as having been waged mainly for “conquest and plunder.” Debs argued that America’s capitalist class has always taught and trained the American people “to believe it to be [their] patriotic duty to go to war and to have [themselves] slaughtered at their command,” while the capitalists and industrialists themselves would reap the economic rewards of war. This notion of war as a highly profitable and lucrative endeavor was corroborated most famously by United States Marine Corp Major General Smedley D. Butler in 1935. Butler referred to war as a “racket” of which “only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about,” and which “is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.” Debs and Butler both argued that private profit, not defense of the homeland, is what drives America’s war efforts.

Today, many Americans don’t seem to share this sense of skepticism toward war and militarism. To most Americans it seems perfectly normal, that anytime the flag is raised and the national anthem is played, whether at sports events, concerts, or public festivities, we automatically equate these acts with supporting the troops and the military. To most Americans it seems perfectly normal to have military fighter jets fly over a stadium before a big game. And to most Americans it seems perfectly normal that children at a very early age are made to stand and pledge allegiance to a flag before they can start their school day. What’s lost on the majority of Americans is that these are hypernationalist expressions of jingoism and fascism, which are usually seen under totalitarian and dictatorial regimes like Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Honecker’s East Germany, or Kim’s North Korea., all of which heavily indoctrinated their society from an early age, and which dictated reverence for and glorification of wars, leaders, and the military. It seems very odd and hypocritical that a supposedly free and democratic country would adopt such principles itself.

Many Americans, both liberal and conservative, are quick to thank a veteran for their service, all while more and more veterans themselves have become critical of such gestures. Some veterans argue that not everyone’s experience in the military was the same, and that thanking them for their service could trigger traumatic experiences and memories. Some veterans even argue that it evokes feelings of “guilt and shame” in them, and that it reminds them of their own “responsibility and culpability for the pain and suffering [they] caused innocent people.” They also argue that the general public doesn’t fully comprehend the “nature and reality” of war. Moreover, veterans may also “doubt the sincerity of these expressions of supposed gratitude” as merely something people say, not because they “care about what [veterans] did or sacrificed, but only to demonstrate [their own] supposed good character, or patriotism.” Other veterans argue that empty phrases of thanks, no matter how well-intentioned, only serve to absolve the public from the cost of war, and that it “lets [them] off the hook for what [they] have—or haven’t—done.“

In any case, these veterans would appreciate actions more than words. So, instead of merely thanking a veteran for their service, more Americans should organize and demand that this country free itself from the stranglehold of corporate control, and provide healthcare, housing, education, and full equality as a right to all people. Yet, while so many Americans pay lip service to supporting military personnel, they seem at best apprehensive toward taking such steps to fundamentally transform their homeland into a country that truly cares for and looks after not just veterans and their families, but everyone in society.

Young children in particular are hardly capable of adequately processing such complex thoughts and emotions about wars and veterans. Therefore, any superficial activity to observe Veterans Day in elementary school hardly goes beyond revering and glorifying militaristic heroism. But teaching young children reverence for war and militarism will not create a better society. Teaching them kindness, equity, and justice, on the other hand, will, because not only would a society based on those values be of much greater service to veterans, but it might even equip future generations with the tools to make militarism and war obsolete.

Matthew M. Heidtmann is a PhD Candidate and an Adjunct Professor in History. His research focuses on American progressivism and conservatism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He also writes occasionally on issues relating to politics, history, and political culture, and his writing has appeared in The Washington Post, ROAR Magazine, Real Progressives, and Dissident Voice. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/east_coast_matt Read other articles by Matthew M..