LAST NIGHT, the White House hosted a formal dinner in honor of Iraq veterans, inviting 200 soldiers and their spouses from all 50 states. It was an opportunity to give thanks. But it wasn’t enough.
The complicated ending to the Iraq war has generated an impassioned debate about how we ought to celebrate the soldiers returning home. Localities throughout the nation have organized parades, but the Pentagon has balked at the notion of a national celebration and a Times Square event. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has deferred to the Pentagon’s concern that the events are premature because we still have troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan, and a big party could be viewed by Afghans as triumphalist.
But it seems difficult to imagine that those fighting in Afghanistan would feel anything but gratitude that their friends in arms are getting their recognition; given the oddities of deployment, some Iraq vets could still end up in Afghanistan. And there is little evidence to suggest that a celebration of Iraq veterans would further inflame Afghans; the furor over the improper destruction of copies of the Koran has already done that.
Indeed, equating Iraq and Afghanistan as one war is the same error that got us into Iraq in the first place. The two are not inextricably linked. The war in Iraq is over. Period. Celebrating the 1 million veterans is not a zero-sum game of abandoning the troops in Afghanistan; we can honor both, one now and one later.
The Pentagon is overplaying its hand, being too cautious when it should be magnanimous. Local celebrations have occurred and will continue to do so. The pressure to give national thanks will only mount, putting a White House that has successfully ended the war in an avoidable political debate about whether it is sufficiently grateful to our troops.
But the bigger problem is that denying a parade now assumes that there will be a “correct’’ parade later. There is, after all, no right way to celebrate war. The two words together are a paradox, even in the most just of situations. Ad hoc displays of gratitude — the free baseball tickets, the signs hanging on highway bypasses, the quiet family reunions far away from any media glare — are all legitimate ways to remember.
So is a parade. It may be mere symbolism, but far better to have it than not. A parade need not be about the end of a war, but the beginning of the reintegration of those who fought. It’s not about Iraq, it’s about America. It is a public gesture to help transfer each soldier’s wartime burdens to a society that has sacrificed so little. We do not want to relive the decade-long delay of thanks we gave our Vietnam soldiers.
The parade could mark the beginning of a much more rigorous national discussion about what we actually owe the troops. Unemployment rates for veterans are painfully high. Medical and health consequences continue to overwhelm young men and women. Suicide rates for soldiers were up again last month.
This confusing decision by the Obama administration - applauding local parades, denying a national one, and inviting a select few to dinner - is also inconsistent with history. On May 8, 1945, Americans celebrated victory against Germany and its allies. V-E Day was followed by V-J day several months, and two atomic bombs, later. Victory over Japan was sealed on Sept. 2 when Japan formally signed its surrender. But that famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photo - the kiss between the sailor and the nurse - was actually taken in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945 when President Truman declared that war was finally done.
There are simply no rules on how best to show gratitude.
Unlike WWII, the nation’s sentiment has not crystallized around these wars; we are divided, and a parade will not unite us. But let’s go ahead and have a parade to unite us around what lies ahead, not what came before it, or what’s yet to be done in Afghanistan.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem