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Mike Farrell: To truly honor veterans, we must change — and all be good soldiers for better government

Veterans Day gave Americans an opportunity to reflect on the service so many have given in defense of this country and the ideal we call freedom.

Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty that marked the beginning of the end of World War I. Woodrow Wilson campaigned for re-election in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” but he was unable to live up to his platform for a second term.

The Germans persisted in attacking American ships and sent a message urging Mexico to invade the United States. Wilson had no choice.

According to the Defense Casualty Analysis System, 4.7 million Americans served in military outfits during the war. When it was over, 116,516 Americans were dead and another 200,000 had been wounded.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 16 million Americans served in the military. Of those, 291,557 died and 670,846 were wounded. Then came the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War, and more Americans served and more died.


Most believed in freedom. They wanted to defend their homes and families. They thought it was their obligation because of the birthright that comes with American citizenship.

The men and women who served their country during the Twentieth Century were not, of course, the first. From the Revolution to the War of 1812, from the Mexican War to the Civil War to the Spanish American War, and all those periods of peace in between, people have served. Some came back wounded and some have died.

If we could bring Nathan Hale back – “I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country” he is supposed to have said just before the British hanged him – what would he think of the country his death helped birth?

What about Sgt. Alvin York, one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in the Argonne Forest in France. He captured 132 German soldiers and killed 20 others. What would York, who died in 1964, think of the country he risked his life to preserve?

It’s one thing to celebrate the end of a war and the men and women one day a year, but what about the other 364 days? Do we honor the sacrifice of those who died, of those who came home less than whole, of those who gave two years or 20 years in service to the ideal of freedom and of the United States?

I have studied history enough to recognize that this hurricane of political turbulence is not the first time democracy has had to survive the destructive winds created by men and women who put their own agendas ahead of what is best for this country. We are plagued today with “leaders” who wallow in hypocrisy, pervert the truth and live for the next election. Foisted upon us last month were millions of dollars of political ads, most of which distorted the target’s record and views. It would best be described as spreading more darkness and very little light.

Democracy depends on informed citizens participating in their own government. The president set out even before he was elected to undermine the main source of information about government for citizens by running against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton AND the news media. He has disparaged the news media every time he needs to change the news of the day.

Some journalists have demonstrated in their reporting and their news conference behavior that the president has a point. But painting all journalists with the same brush is stereotyping in the same way that believing every Asian-American is smarter than the average American. Another complication is that the Hannitys and Maddows of cable television fame are not journalists reporting the news, and their role is persuasion not information. Expecting to receive unbiased information from these opinion-shapers is akin to expecting your paycheck to be non-taxable.

It’s easy to point fingers. Our politicians have betrayed us. They excel at deception, and they aren’t always transparent about their actions or their views. Our president has weaponized social media and uses it to demonize people who disagree with him and create an alternate world where the truth is what he says it is. Non-journalists who masquerade as reporters deceive people who fail to understand that truth is elusive and searching for it results in a more accurate account.

Mike Farrell

But we cannot overlook our own role. We should demand more of those we vote for. We should exercise our freedom of speech and defend for others the right to their opinion. We should learn to listen to other views and compare them to our own. We should insist on transparency from government officials. We should insist that those in office and those running for office stop engaging in the rhetoric of personal destruction.

We have massive problems in this country, and we are plagued with leaders who care more about winning elections than solving problems. Democrat, Republican or independent, we all must demand more. Blaming one party and not the other is political blindness.

We disparage the service of millions of American veterans by continuing this charade we call democracy. We owe to the men and women who serve today and those who have served to take our responsibilities as a citizen – information-gathering, examining other viewpoints, turning off the opinion-spewers, and supporting leaders who will work to solve problems not win elections – and to use the freedom they bequeathed us to make a better community, a better state, a better country.

That is how we should celebrate Veterans Day and recognize our Veterans, the millions who have served, sacrificed and even died for freedom. They served this ideal of freedom; so must we. You don’t have to enlist to be a soldier for better government.

Dr. Mike Farrell lives in Covington. He is interim director of the UK School of Journalism and Media, director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at UK, a former Kentucky Post managing editor, chair of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism and co-founder of the NKyTribune. His views are his own and not those of the university.

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  1. Prof. Michael Turney says:

    Wow! — A great analysis and powerful editorial. — From one journalism educator to another: thank you for your insightful comments, thought-provoking assessment, and clear, strong writing. You have once again reinforced the respect and admiration I’ve had for you and your writing abilities over your decades as a reporter, editor, and educator.

    • judyclabes says:

      Thank you, Prof. Turney, for these informed words about our colleague — and also for your long service to journalism education.

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