NEW YORK — A half-moon of garbage trucks rung the southern fringe of Madison Square Park, barriers to keep the parade dignitaries and V.I.P.s insulated from the throng. Loud men with bullhorns moved through the crowd, issuing orders for various veterans groups, while teenage cadets fidgeted in olive drab uniforms that fit their bodies like papier-mâché. The morning smacked of crisp autumn air and rich star-spangled pomp, and for a few seconds at least, I allowed myself to pretend this would be a normal Veterans Day in the city. A day of remembrance, a day of somber celebration, a day of unity.
Then my eyes found the garbage trucks again. A microphone grumbled to life in the park across the street. Whatever this was going to be, it was going to be different.
An older man wearing a camouflage hat with the words NAVY VETERAN on it looked across the street with me. I could feel him sizing me up. “You booing?” he asked. “Or cheering?”
It was the question most every vet was asking each other as we gathered for the parade, whatever our era, whatever our war. To boo the commander in chief on this day, in 2019 America, would be an overtly political act, the kind of political act prohibited in uniform and still often frowned upon after it. Of course, so would cheering the commander in chief. These are treacherous times and the only thing worse than picking a side is not.
“Not cheering,” I said. “I know that much.”
The older man just laughed.
There’s always a bit of spectacle to Veterans Days in New York. In the decade since I got out of the army, I’ve marched in a couple and worked a couple others for a veterans’ nonprofit. Something about the day’s ambiguous intent (the offspring of Armistice Day in the era of forever war is a dark, twisted irony) and our nation’s many proud battle triumphs and myths produce a strange blend of earnest patriotism every November. It’s a day and place where conquerors, protesters, bona fides and posers alike can come together and be together.
In recent years, I’ve chosen to spend Veterans Day in quiet reflection, taking my young son to a museum, or our family dog to the park. But the parade keeps a special place in my soul — the 2011 version did a lot to prove to my younger, more combustible self recently returned from Iraq that, yes, American citizens did care about the wars being fought in their name, they just didn’t know any better than I did what to do with all that care and pride and rage.
That mattered to me. It still does.
The 2019 parade didn’t bring that same sense of renewal. Presidents usually go to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington on Veterans Day but not this year. This year, the president came to the parade and brought with him a very different kind of spectacle. Hundreds milled around the staging area near Madison Square Park, maybe waiting for the actual parade, maybe just here for this, another front in the nation’s ongoing culture war. There was a man dressed as a World War I doughboy. There was another dressed as an African military dictator. Uncle Sam handed out restaurant coupons.
The top floor of a nearby office building put up a simple homemade sign in its window: “IMPEACH.” The energy along the verges of the parade ceremony and park was sharp, even angry. Possible violence is something you can feel, if you’ve been around a bit of it, and this had that in spades, even before a tall, bearded man approached anti-Trump protesters and screamed, “You’re disgusting!” into their faces over and over.
A baby-faced policeman came over to separate the participants. I asked him how old he was on 9/11. He didn’t like the question but still gave me an answer: “Young.”
The microphone in the park grumbled to be again, and the Marine Band played “Hail to the Chief,” and the president was introduced. He began his speech.
On a television replay I’d watch later, his speech was subdued and, for him, temperate. Beyond the sanctum of garbage trucks, though, the crowd grew more agitated. A chant of “Trump 2020” was met with a sing-songy, sarcastic “Bone Spurs.” Bursts of “U-S-A” followed. A veteran wearing a red MAGA hat yelled at a veteran wearing a VETS AGAINST TRUMP shirt and accused him of being a fraud. He, in turn, called the man in the MAGA hat a mouthbreather. (This validated his veteran status in my mind: that’s a military insult, through and through.) A NATO flag was waved and so was a Trump flag and a couple of pimply-faced Trump kids asked a passer-by what her “Peshmerga” shirt meant. She explained and they nodded, seemingly impressed.
“I disagree with what he [President Trump] did to the Kurds,” one said calmly in the maelstrom.
Only splashes of the speech could reach our ears. The president’s clear delight at retelling the death of the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi caused a stir in the crowd, then a series of groans and head shakes, then more ‘U-S-A” chants. A man wearing a signboard (and little else) that said “Jeffrey Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself” wondered aloud when the speech would end — it was going on too long, he believed.
And then on the other side of the metal gates, a man in a wheelchair wearing a World War II hat rolled by, holding a miniature American flag.
“I love America!” he called to the crowd. Everyone — everyone — cheered.
The president’s speech ended. A 21-gun salute echoed through the metal-gray sky. The sense of possible violence dissipated, and a young man in Trump-branded overalls took photographs with a middle-age woman wearing a large Bernie Sanders necklace. Things began to feel more normal. Weird in the way Veterans Day is supposed to be weird.
Thirty minutes later, as our group waited to enter the parade on 24th Street, I watched a man who said he was a Desert Storm veteran confront two women holding anti-Trump signs. He called them libtards and ungrateful. The women didn’t back down. A man wearing a Vietnam veteran shirt stepped forward to intervene.
“They’re patriots,” he said. “And I agree with them.”
The Desert Storm veteran looked at the other’s shirt. “Where’s your honor?” he asked.
“Honor’s what brought me here today,” the older man said. Then he held up his own anti-Trump sign.
“Same,” said the other man. Then they just kind of stared at each other for a few seconds before turning away.
As we marched up Fifth Avenue, ciphers and proxies for a republic as divided as we are about our elected leader, I thought a lot about those men and about honor, too. I should’ve said something, I thought, to bring them together. It was Veterans Day, after all.
What that thing was to say, though, I still don’t know.
Matt Gallagher (@MattGallagher0) is the author of the forthcoming novel ‘Empire City’ and a veteran of the United States Army.
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