On Memorial Day this Monday, Americans will remember the men and women who gave their lives in defence of the nation, as well as what that nation stands for and promises to become. Some among us, however, honour those sacrifices not just once a year but throughout the year.
In the best spirit of “mourn for the dead and fight for the living”, the guys in Sarasota, Florida who joined together as Veterans for Common Sense (FLVCS) have been paying homage to their fallen comrades not simply with prayers and flowers, but, all the more critically, by working to sustain the ideals and aspirations for which they gave their lives.
As Gene Jones, the chair of the group, recalls, the idea of creating FLVCS first came up in the course of a fall 2002 lunchtime conversation among three friends, each of them a lawyer and Vietnam veteran – Dennis Plews, who saw combat in Southeast Asia as an artilleryman, Mike Burns, who was shot down over North Vietnam and spent five-years in Hanoi Hilton (alongside John McCain), and Jones himself, who served as an Air Force linguist.
Still outraged by the apparent theft of the 2000 presidential election, and increasingly worried about the Bush administration’s eagerness to invade Iraq, the three were now also agonizing over the prospect of being represented in congress by none other than the Republican Katherine Harris, the former secretary of state of Florida who had validated the 2000 election results that led to the Supreme Court’s anointment of George Bush as president. Tossing ideas around as they ate, Burns, Plews, and Jones resolved to work politically in support of “anybody except her”.
Harris was elected to congress that November. Still, the three veterans, along with the nearly 300 others who responded to their calls for action, would not give up. They now set themselves to opposing the Administration’s drive to war. Laying claim to the memory and legacy of the revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense had turned America’s colonial rebellion into a democratic revolution and whose Crisis Papers sustained his fellow citizens’ energies through the darkest days of the struggle, they dubbed themselves Florida Veterans for Common Sense – an act reminiscent of those who on their return from southeast Asia in the late 1960s formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War and called themselves the “winter soldiers”.
To the now middle-aged guys of FLVCS, Paine’s words – most notably, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now…’ – remained powerful and moving, for, as they saw it, Americans once again faced a major crisis, indeed, an ever-intensifying one that threatened to seriously undermine American democratic life. And given all that has happened since then – torture, domestic spying, no WMDs, and so on – we know that they were sadly prescient.
Though angered by the Bush administration’s appropriations of God, flag and the concept of freedom, the men of FLVCS have never spouted self-hating, anti-American rhetoric, for they do not see Bush and his cronies as representing what the nation is really about. In fact, as their statement of principles declares, they are determined to redeem the best of American history and ideals: “As veterans, we support the founding principles of the United States…liberty, equality, human rights and democracy.”
Furthermore, in contrast to the conservatives who underwrote Bush’s two campaigns, they neither hate government nor profess any desire to run down public services. To the contrary, their FLVCS manifesto calls upon the government “to provide returning veterans the best medical and psychological treatment.” And while they call for a “timely withdrawal of American troops from Iraq,” they do not push pacifism or demand a reduction in defence spending. As they put it, the United States needs “a strong military designed to protect citizens against 21st century threats both foreign and domestic”. But as they also make clear, which distinguishes them from their antagonists: “As veterans, we support the ethical and humane treatment of prisoners and oppose all torture.”
More than a collection of petition-signers, the founding members of FLVCS – joined by younger veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq – have in the course of the past four and a half years staged educational events, raised money for disabled veterans, marched against the war, lobbied for enhanced veterans benefits, and campaigned for anti-war candidates.
They have witnessed further defeats. In 2004 they did what they could to counter the swift-boaters’ assaults on John Kerry’s character. And in 2006 their candidate in the race for Florida’s 13th congressional district was defeated in an election reminiscent of 2000. But they could take solace in the fact that Harris lost her 2006 race for Senate and that Americans have evidently come to see what the Bush administration is really about.
This Memorial Day, I will join in remembering and honouring those who served the nation and died doing so. But I will also salute and toast the guys of Florida Veterans for Common Sense. Fortunately, they came back alive and – in a fashion that would make Paine proud, I’m sure – they never forgot what America was supposed to be about.
Harvey Kaye is a professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and the author of “Thomas Paine and the Promise of America.”