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Siegfried Sassoon

Does it matter? — losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter? — losing your sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter? — those dreams from the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.


“Does It Matter?” by Siegfried Sassoon.

As we near Memorial Day, the subject is war. And on this Memorial Day, in the United States, the subject is how we treat veterans who have made it home.

In November of last year, I wrote a post in which I argued,

As of last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs has stopped releasing the number of non-fatal casualties of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. The International Business Times suspects this is an attempt to conceal a “grim milestone”: the one millionth American serviceman or woman who has returned home maimed or wounded…

Yet what we should see in the homecoming of these impossibly brave people is obscured by the context in which we see them return. So often, an apparently emblematic veteran is shown coming home at the halftime of an NFL game, his teary-eyed family rushing across the field for a hug as reverent claps and raucous chants of “USA!” reverberate through the stadium. In this contrived ceremony, many Americans believe they have seen the typical homecoming: a healthy soldier in uniform, his adorable and adoring wife, proud children, and the appreciative cheers of a grateful nation. Yet far more veterans will come home to trouble — physical, interpersonal and financial trouble — which is often the direct consequence of their deployments. But at the football game, you clap, you cry, and you absolve yourself of responsibility to that overjoyed family on the field.

I received several comments and a handful of emails in response, prompting me to offer a more direct clarification:

We send soldiers on a string of protracted deployments, from which they eventually return to a VA that is thoroughly backlogged and utterly inefficient. And underlying these operational disgraces is a strategic program that entrenches them (and us) in conflicts that are completely open-ended. There is no victory without objectives, and our objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan are, and have been for a long time, either muddled or unattainable…

It’s ignoble to charge men and women like [my brother-in-law] with quixotic missions — missions which we as a people neither seriously engage with nor sacrifice for, except in meaningless, vicarious gestures… What counts is, first, adopting sound policy so American power is used justifiably and effectively in the world; and second, making sure we have the proper care and support waiting for those brave men and women when they return home.

At this point, I’m on the verge of hysterics about the Veterans Affairs Health Care scandal. I think President Obama should be too. The opening words at his press conference yesterday should not have been “… people will be held accountable.” They should have been, “Not one more veteran dies because this sort of negligence. Not one more veteran loses care because of it. Not one more veteran will wait an extra minute, in any waiting room, in any state, at any time of day, because of it… otherwise, heads will roll.”

More war poetry:

Siegfried Sassoon