- - Sunday, November 10, 2019

“Saturday Night Live” has a cast of urban New York City sophisticates that occasionally lampoons its cousins in rural Upstate and Western New York as hopeless rubes. One cast member recently described it as that part of New York State that still flies the Confederate flag. Having retired to Western New York — with breaks in Florida in winter — I’ve yet to see a Confederate flag. However, I see many more American flags there than I do in the New York City or Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas.

Beginning November 11th, there will be a huge replica of the American flag made with artificial poppies in upstate Livingston County. It will constitute the county’s Veterans Monument.

Livingston County is about 30 minutes south of urban Rochester, but a thousand miles away psychologically. Old Glory still flies at the county courthouse, and church attendance is strong. The towns and villages have monuments to their war dead, but this memorial is different. It celebrates our living veterans and their legacy.

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Our country has a conflicted history with our living veterans. The challenges of the survivors of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and even the Bonus Marches of the 1930s are ancient history, but the dwindling survivors of World War II have seen massive diversity in the treatment of returning vets in the years since Japan surrendered in 1945.

The “Greatest Generation” received parades down Broadway and the Main Streets of most towns and villages of our country as did the returning warriors from Desert Storm in 1991. Both were popular and victorious wars. However, the reception for more ambiguous conflicts that have had no clear outcomes has been much more mixed.

Even though they stopped Communist aggression cold in Korea, the veterans of that conflict received muted welcomes when they returned. The same is true of those who have served in the Global War on Terror since 9/11. Most have been thanked for their service in one way or another. But since the outcome remains a work in progress, the 98 percent of the nation that has not served have become largely numbed to the conflict.

However, numbness is better than the deplorable outright disdain that many Vietnam veterans received when they returned to our nation’s ports, bus stations and airports. Many of those opposed to the war couldn’t get at the politicians who were directing the conflict, so they took it out on those who were fighting it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington has done much to give many of the war’s veterans closure on this disgraceful period in America’s relationship with our veterans, and the citizens of Livingston County hope that their memorial will help as well.

Perhaps the group most neglected in recent history are the Cold War veterans who served from the end of the Korean War until the beginning of Vietnam. Until recently, some were not even allowed to join the American Legion. It has been said that it was not their fault that we didn’t have a war on their watch; that is the wrong way of looking at it.

It was their fault that there was no thermonuclear war with the old Soviet Union. They deterred war by manning the bastions of freedom along the DMZ in Korea, the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain and the Defense Early Warning Line that separated the Free World from the totalitarian USSR and enabled its eventual collapse.

As Livingston County dedicates its memorial, the participant that has received the most conflicted reception from the general American public has been the flag represented at the site. Our soldiers have marched under it in victory as well as defeat since 1776. It has known moments of triumph. But like our warriors in Vietnam, it has been disrespected and denigrated. Even today, some young athletes kneel in disrespect forgetting — or not knowing — that it was a version of that flag that the soldiers who freed their ancestors from slavery fought under.

Throughout history, cultures have passed down their traditions and sense of honor though oral storytelling. If the Livingston County Memorial serves its purpose, it will give our veterans — present and future — a place to bring their children and grandchildren to tell their stories. Some stories will be fond memories and some sad because service also involves sacrifice. If that happens, it will make the memorial worthwhile. As the vets join the long line of heroes in the county’s cemeteries, they will stay alive in the memories of those they will have left behind.

This article is excerpted from remarks made at the Nov. 11 dedication of the Livingston County Veterans Monument.

• Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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