A polytheanimist Thracian perspective on creating, rebuilding, and embodying ancestral religions as living traditions in the 21st century. Religion as life, life as spirit, spirit as being.
Honoring Warriors Among Us
Today I stood in line at the DMV -- as arduous an experience here in in the S.F. Peninsula as it is anywhere else in the country, I'd bet -- to collect the new license plates for my 1978 Cadillac. I had opted while ordering them some months back to both get a set of custom "vanity" plates and donate to a worthwhile charity (so that my license fees went to a good cause). I chose the "Honoring Veterans" license plate because it gave all of the money made in the registration to the state Veteran's Affairs office, which is definitely something that I can stand behind. I chose the name of one of my Thracian gods for the plate, and waited the twelve weeks for them to arrive at the DMV. I was excited for my new plates, as my car -- a retired service-vehicle with over a quarter of a century of time spent in the small fleet of a local funeral company -- is a consecrated Ancestor Shrine on Wheels (with a 425 V8 engine and classic white-wall tires) and I always get excited when I get to give a new item, fitting, or shrine-piece to an active altar or sacred space.
While I stood there, curious at why the line wasn't about three times as long as it was (which it would be within the hour, I later saw), a man standing behind me asked a question. "Is this where I'm likely meant to be, in order to register my car in the state? I've just moved here." He had an accent that tossed several darts in a map of the country, and a face that spoke of many stories and not a few struggles, but a smile that had all the charisma and warmth of a favored uncle. I told him that he was in the right place, and we talked a bit about the DMV, lines, waiting in lines, disliking lines, and so forth. I asked how long he'd been in the area, and he told me he was just coming up on thirty days. "Where from?" I asked, in a polite way that wasn't too prying but hopefully communicated genuine interest.
"Kentucky, and Fort Worth before that. I've just retired from the military," he replied. He said this with obvious pride, but also a little bit of hesitance: he was in California now, and the liberal San Francisco Bay Area to boot, and he was clearly not too sure about how well vets would be received. That bothered me. I smiled, and I asked what branch he was from. "Army," he said, and we talked a little bit about it without going into any details on his service. He seemed relieved that I engaged and didn't say anything critical, and that bothered me too: a man near twenty years my senior who has clearly served his country proudly should never have to worry about how a civilian will respond to him, in this way. He asked why I was there, and I told him about my license plates.
He all but lit up on hearing that I was picking up Vet charity plates, and smiled big. He shook my hand -- a firm, but genuine grip -- and said that I was doing a good thing. His eyes fell to the cane at my side, and he looked at me a moment longer, and then asked if I had served. I told him no, and explained that I had family in the service: a retired Naval brother, a sister in the Airforce, a cousin in the Marines, and a nephew in the Army. He smiled more and we talked about them a little bit, and generally he seemed to warm up. He turned the topic back to my license plates, though, and he said to me:
"As a veteran, I need you to know that I am honored. Your plates will say "Honoring Veterans" and you need to know that you are. Exactly that. Not many do. Thank you." There was an emotion in his voice, which wasn't there before. His words were friendly before, and earnest, but now they were thicker, heavier: he was moved, and his being moved brought me to being moved, and I felt the heaviness and the warmth and I shook his hand. Then my time came to get a number at the front of the line, and I wished him luck, and he wished me luck, and we parted ways.
An hour later I got my plates, and I put them on my car. They were beautiful, and the golden caduceus logo -- an official DMV decal showing that I am honoring the Army Nurse Corps as well as the VA in general -- to the left of my license "number" brought it all together quite magically. But as I screwed the new plates onto the car, my mind was still back on the man from the line, the veteran who I was hoping to honor with these plates. My license plates had moved him. Such a simple thing -- less than a fifty-dollar cost to me for cool plates with an awesome logo that honor my gods and my warrior ancestors and support a charity I believe in -- had moved him. That has stuck with me throughout the day and I suspect that it will stick with me for a long time to come.
It occurs to me how much I take for granted that I honor warriors, soldiers and veterans so readily, whether they're the uniformed and official variety or those who are willing to put themselves in harm's way to protect, serve and defend in other capacities -- unofficial civilian capacities included! -- every day. I forget that so many people don't honor their vets. They don't honor the soldiers or the warriors whose service every day allows for the world that most of us enjoy to happen. So many people get caught up in the politicking of the modern world -- drone strikes and corrupt government actions and illegal combat and invasion and lies and media coverups and so on and so forth -- that they forget that they have iPhones and fuel for under $5 a gallon and education and jobs, because some people, somewhere in the world, have chosen to put themselves in danger to secure those realities. I'm not idealizing the wars -- ANY wars -- or the agendas behind them. I damn well know how soldiers have been misused as agents of colonization, invasion and worse over the centuries. But let's look at the big picture.
For the vast majority of the two-hundred-thousand or so years of human social evolution, warriors have been amongst us to take up arms and defend our borders. Some of our warriors today are uniformed military servicemen and servicewomen. Some of them are in law enforcement, or are first-responders with an ambulance company. Others are just strong wisdom and ethics carriers whose battlegrounds are their own neighborhoods. An early teacher of mine, a powerful priest who has since passed, was as much a warrior as any United States soldier, and he had the scars to prove it: he was a wounded veteran of the war called homophobia from way back in the day, in decades where there were no advocacy groups and they still institutionalized and criminalized anything that we'd call LGTBQ today. I earned my own scars early, taking a stand against the violence I saw in our rape-culture against women, and finding myself unable to stand on the sidelines when harm had a way of coming at those I cared about. I learned that I was a warrior not while attending a workshop or reading a self-help book or meditating with the gods of my ancestors, but while putting myself in harm's way on behalf of another.
While I don't in any way seek to equate my experiences of "domestic warfare" to the horrors of overseas military deployment -- I never had to worry about rockets from the hills or exploding dog carcasses or literal mine fields -- I can relate to the social experiences of soldiers who have "come back from the wilds" to their society. In the ancient world, there were rites of passage and rites of returning that a society would organize and conduct on behalf of their sacred warriors, to welcome and receive them back into society on their return from the wilds of warfare or strife. These rites frequently involved celebration and solemnity at the same time; a statement of warmth to communicate tenderness and receptivity and hope, as well as a solemn piece to communicate some level of understanding of -- and more importantly, a very real level of respect for -- the trials and traumas that the warriors had endured on behalf of the greater society while away in the wilds. There was an understanding communicated in these rituals that the warriors had eaten stale food and slept in trenches or crawled through thorn-toothed brush for miles or severed bone from flesh or had their own bones severed from flesh on behalf of the greater whole. The rituals and rites served to not only benefit the returning warriors, whether they were healthy or wounded and on their way back to the ancestors, they also served to remind the people who were not warriors about the sacrifices made on their society's behalf by these brave men (and women).
American culture lacks this. We do not honor our warriors as a society. We do not honor those who put their lives on the line for our rights. We take for granted our "civil liberties" and fail to render respect unto those whose very lives may be forfeit at any time to secure them. We buy televisions and iPhones and we cozy up in nice couches with our families and feel so personally affronted when a politician says something that we don't like, or are told not to like by the pretty newscasters on the pretty televisions, all the while ignoring those who struggle daily for the rights that allow us these luxuries. We ignore the ones who will not sleep beside their partners or kiss their children if they have them. This doesn't apply to everyone, and obviously some areas of the country are better at these things than others, but by and large I observe these statements to be true. This is perhaps especially true in spiritually-pursuant communities, who abhor the idea of violence and glamorize the principles of "cosmic love" and "peaceful unity" and "oneness" and so on: ideas that they would never have had the luxury of thinking up, let along identifying with, if not for somebody somewhere else brave enough to put on a uniform of some kind and step into the path of a bullet, or a tank, or a corrupt and oppressive force, or a fist, or a bat, or a flurry of words more destructive than any of the others.
Peaceful centers do not exist without well manned edges to secure the boundaries of society. This is not a statement about border patrol or immigration, at all -- I'm so not that guy, by the way, and my politics do *not* lean that way -- but instead a statement of respecting and honoring those who have in any way put themselves on the line for us as a society. If you like the idea of a peaceful center, than I encourage you to meditate reflectively on whose blood was spilled to allow for that to happen. Who faced the hurricane of slaughter or the threat of torture or the very real pains of realized physical anguish so that you could recline in a comfortable spot and luxuriate on non-violence. Who do you think made the world safe enough for international travel, so that you can get your spiritual kicks off appropriating the spiritual novelties of those other people in that other place? Was it the ones handing out puppies or bunnies or butterflies? Probably not. I'm pretty sure fluffy bunnies don't do a whole lot to secure civilian tourists abroad, or for that matter downtown in your own cities.
We live in a violent world. Death abounds. It is fine if you do not want to face death, as a theory or a reality: that is your choice. But it is not a choice to ignore the fact that you only have a choice because somebody else has chosen to walk with death in their mind, in their heart, in their hands, so that you can be comfortable. Somebody else has given up the priorities of safety or comfort or LCD-vs-Plasma and Hybrid-vs-Biodiesel so that you can face those things. And you know what? I'm pretty sure that ones who serve our society in that way, with those inherent sacrifices, do so out of love and respect for the societies and the rights that they are serving and defending. Speaking as one who has faced lethal combat domestically, who has stood in the way of those elements of society that would bring harm and death and pain upon the innocent, I have never walked with violence in heart because I like it, but because I prioritize your safety over my own personal preferences, comforts, or needs.
Human society has always been faced with the need for warriors, guardians and soldiers, and it is illogical (and unnatural) to assume (or hope) that this will ever change. I would wager, having seen the film Demolition Man, that such a change is not only entirely delusional but also would be incredibly detrimental to society at large. This is not advocating for more violence than is necessary, nor for a militarizing of society during peace-times. Such would not be in alignment with the ancient ancestral wisdoms that have guided me thus far. Our ancestors did things in their lives and societal structures for purpose, never just "because"; the world was just as harsh today as it was then, and though modern innovations have given us central heating and antibiotics and automobiles and mp3 players, we are not rendered immutably safe by these things and it is today, as it was for a hundred thousand years before today, our soldiers and our guardians and our warrior stock who willingly forfeit the comforts of standard society in order to ensure its continued existence. Our modern culture's aversion to healthy development of these qualities -- its lack of understanding of where to put them at all! -- has led less helpful warrior cultures to develop in the way of healthy, integrated structures. By this I mean gang-type dynamics, or destructive college fraternity movements, in place of traditional warrior-youth culture, training, and outlets. These things will never go away: we are animals, as noble and as savage and as brutal and as comfort-driven and as loyal and as fierce and as horny and as mortal as any other creature kin that walks this world beside us. Human society was initially served to provide a structure for each human to fill an essential role that best matched with their inborn qualities while also demanding of them a certain caliber of social responsibility. The societies of our ancestors were built upon systems of honor and respect, which awarded an individual for self-knowledge and community relation equally. Today's society ignores honor, overrides respect, and pigeon-holes all humans into prefab shapes that deny the entirety of their human nature. It is no wonder that we've forgotten how to honor warriors… when our society has failed to teach us to even honor ourselves!
Please support your living warrior veterans, your warrior dead, and your warrior youth who will -- who must -- hold the line in future wars, in future conflicts, perhaps sooner and younger than is ever fair. But life isn't fair. So be fair to those who face the unfairness on your behalf, because, damnit, they've earned it. And they earn it. And they will earn it. And if you're really bothered by the corruption and less clean or necessary elements of violence and so forth, focus your efforts on raising warriors who know that they'll be respected and rewarded for their service, rather than communicating to them that all of their sacrifices won't mean a thing to you. No veteran should ever need to be moved near to tears by a license plate: that is wrong, and we should all be doing our part to support them every day, in every way that we can. That doesn't mean ignore other charities, or go run out and buy license plates… it can be as simple as showing them respect. Thanking them. Thanking those who serve, in all the fields of battle, foreign and domestic, seen and unseen, living and dead. Honor them, in all their forms, for all of their sacrifices. That is your duty, your service, as payment for theirs.
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