Last Friday, there was a protest on the steps of Olin Library. During the protest, an American Flag was defaced. Since then, articles in The Argus and Wesleying have attempted to address the fact that the defacement happened concurrently with Veterans Day. This article is an attempt to address the flag defacing from a veteran perspective, though it does not reflect the opinions of all veterans, nor the views of Wesleyan Posse Veterans as a group. This article is simply the opinion of two students, with complex and multifaceted identities, who also happen to be veterans.
To be clear, we do feel that the decision to deface the flag was disrespectful, though not for the reasons you might imagine. One reason we feel this way is because organizers made it a point to invite Posse Veterans to the protest. What follows is the text of that invitation:
“I would also like to invite you and other veterans who are angered and frustrated by Trump’s rhetoric to join us at our rally today at noon outside Usdan. Trump’s messages of hate and intolerance affect all marginalized communities, including veterans, and this rally will be a place to find love and support.”
The organizers’ language is questionable. Considering that some of the veterans on campus supported the protest, the flag defacement was a strange way to foster a feeling of “love and support” among us, especially on Veterans Day. Flag burning is a complicated act, and while it can make a powerful statement about feelings of oppression, it can also be interpreted as a form of visual violence.
Even though the flag was defaced, some veterans chose to stay and march with the protesters. Some veterans even encouraged students to march to Main Street, despite concerns that doing so might not be appropriate. This encouragement was issued with the expectation that Wesleyan students would remain respectful of the many veterans who were downtown, observing the holiday with their families. Unfortunately, we do not feel that students lived up to this expectation.
Flag defacement wasn’t the only element of the protest that was distressing in light of Veterans Day. One of the veterans who marched with the protest did so behind a student who, when asked by a bystander if the protesters supported veterans, responded with comments that characterized the military as an imperialist, racist, and colonial force. We believe that this is a necessary conversation to have; however, this response came in direct response to a question regarding veterans, not the military. We feel it is important to make a distinction between the two.
We would like to address the assumption that some of the students at Wesleyan seem to have regarding Veterans Day. The understanding that Veterans Day is a holiday that glorifies war and imperialism is false. Veterans Day is not intended as a celebration of the military-industrial complex. Before being renamed in 1954, Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day. The date on which it is held, Nov. 11, coincides with Remembrance Day in Europe, which marks the end of military hostilities in World War I in 1918. The day is intended to memorialize the devastation that war causes, and allow those participants who are traumatized by the horror of it to reflect quietly on the deeply complicated nature of military service, which often involves conflicting feelings of shame and pride. It was also intended as a time dedicated to honor the service of people whom, in many cases, had no say in providing that service—service that, for many, involved great loss of friends, of physical body, and of sanity.
In addition to having misperceptions about the connotations of Veterans Day, many Wesleyan students seem to have relatively polarizing assumptions about veterans themselves. If you are someone who harbors the belief that veterans can be characterized in any singular way, allow us, at this moment, to disavow you of this view. Veterans are an enormously diverse group of individuals, who represent a vastly divergent number of backgrounds and opinions. Our life experiences have all been different, and our belief systems cannot be reduced to a single perspective. This can only be understood if people make a genuine effort to engage us in conversation and get to know us as individuals. There are times, Friday’s protest being one of them, when it feels like this is not happening at the University. Please, do not reduce us to a “thank you for your service,” or a blanket statement about war criminals.
We would like to commend a number of things about last week’s protest. We found the speakers to be passionate and eloquent. The stories that students shared about their experiences with injustice were moving, and we think their resilience in the face of that injustice is inspiring.
The speakers made two points that we’d like to further: the first, that it is impossible for many of the students at Wesleyan to understand certain fears or certain types of pain; the second, that while experiencing deep pain and anger, it is upsetting to be told that you should not feel that way.
We would like to offer our own interpretation: in the same way that we will never understand what it is like to be undocumented immigrants or to be people of color, most Wesleyan students will never understand what it is like to watch a friend’s coffin—draped in an American flag— being loaded onto a plane. Neither will students understand what it is like to receive a phone call from half a world away, informing you that a loved one has just been blown up inside their Humvee. In the same way that many students need time to express their pain and anger regarding the election, veterans need time to express their complicated emotions about military service. To have Veterans Day dismissed by the leaders of the protest as “a whole ’nother thing” and then to be told not to be angry is unfair to us. We are people, and the pain and grief we experience are real. For many of us, Veterans Day is a time to process these feelings.
If the organizers of the protest had intended to respect any of this, the easiest thing to do would have been to get in touch with us and let us know beforehand that defacing the flag was part of the plan. What the organizers would have been surprised to find is that many of us, even some of the most conservative among us, wouldn’t have objected. One thing that almost all of the veterans here can agree on is that we are firm believers in free expression. However, if we had been given a heads up, many of us would probably have chosen not to attend the protest, not because we disagree with the cause, but because it’s hard to see a flag defaced on Veterans Day, a day where we ourselves are trying to process our relationship to that very object. More importantly, if veterans had known the flag was going to be defaced before hand, individuals who are struggling with service-related mental health issues could have made an informed choice about exposing themselves to something that could be traumatic.
While we believe that there should never be limits to free expression, there are certainly limits to good taste.
White is a member of the class of 2019, and Foley is a member of the class of 2018.