Muir ’20: A request for respect

Op-Ed Contributor
Monday, November 14, 2016

This past weekend, the nation celebrated Veterans Day, a national holiday where the country collectively takes a moment to honor the people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Every year, Brown University hosts a Veterans Day ceremony to honor its student veterans, past and present, as well as veterans in the surrounding community. The ceremony is a Brown tradition that brings together distinguished guests, such as proud alums, city officials and even President Christina Paxson P’19.

As you walked on campus Thursday evening or Friday morning, did you notice the small American flags on the Main Green that follow a path to Ruth Simmons Quadrangle? The student veterans who placed the flags there were doing so in preparation for the Veterans Day ceremony; the flags line the procession route that the ceremony guests, ROTC color guard and traditional bagpiper march down at the beginning of the ceremony. Additionally, flags were placed around Brown’s beautiful war memorials and around the Main Green flagpole. If you didn’t see the flags, it is probably because within minutes of them being planted, they were ripped out by angry students and thrown on the ground or in nearby garbage cans.

I have since been told that students were confused and unhappy at seeing the flags because they appeared out of context. But what context is needed to show respect and solidarity for the 12 undergraduate student veterans at Brown (0.002 percent of the undergraduate population), for the thousands of past student veterans and for all veterans across the nation? What context is needed to celebrate a federally declared, national holiday that honors public servants? In fact, what context is needed at all to fly this nation’s flag? For an institution that prides itself on diversity, acceptance and inclusion, I find it hard to believe that this sad incident was a simple matter of context. But in light of the situation, perhaps some historical context will help.

Though it got its current name in 1954, Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson commemorated the armistice with Germany — which went into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 — by declaring it a national holiday. A few years later, the U.S. Congress stated that “it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”

Like all of the Ivy League universities, Brown has a long history with the military. During the Revolutionary War, parts of campus, including University Hall, served as military barracks and hospital facilities for the American troops. Four of the seven graduates from Brown’s inaugural class of 1769 served in the Revolution. Our World War I Soldiers Memorial Arch that we’ve all walked through countless times was erected in honor of the 41 alums and students and one faculty member who lost their lives during the war. Throughout World War II, Brown offered a year-round academic program for military officers. At the war’s end, Brown students — military and civilian — marched to Pembroke campus where the women students joined the celebratory procession and “went down Thayer Street and stopped at the flagpole for the singing of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’”

But like much of the nation, the bloody stain of the Vietnam War saw public support for the military on campus completely erode. By 1972, ROTC on Brown’s campus ceased to exist. Since then, Brown’s relationship with veterans appears to be slowly thawing. This year for example, after 44 years, ROTC at Brown has resumed with three first-year student cadets who have felt the honorable call to public service. Furthermore, in an effort to increase the diversity of its student body, Brown has made huge strides to encourage veterans to apply for admission.

Now imagine how future veteran applicants feel, or how those three first-year cadets feel, knowing that the Brown community values diversity, respect and understanding only when provided context. Imagine the way that the 12 current undergraduate student veterans feel when they must provide context in order to honor their collective and personal history and to share this with the community in peace. As Congress points out, Veterans Day is much more than a day to thank veterans for their service. It is a day to perpetuate peace, good will and mutual understanding. At Brown specifically, Veterans Day offers the university a chance to revisit and honor its history and a chance to consider just how inclusive its future will be. After all, we veterans served the entire American public regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion or socioeconomic background. We dedicated ourselves to service so that the students of Brown University and the American people in general can hold sit-ins, protest, stomp flags, be critical of their president or write op-eds. We swore to protect your ability to prosper as free citizens and human beings worthy of respect. We want the same from you.

Michael Muir ’20 is a first-year student and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He can be reached at michael_muir@brown.edu.

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