Empty thanks

I’ve been thinking about war a lot recently, not just because it looks as if we might be stepping up our military involvement in Iraq for the third time in a decade. And also not just because Russia has been doing its best to destabilize Ukraine, with barely disguised intentions on bringing it to the Baltic states next.

We’re also, here in the U.S., beginning to see a increasing number of veterans returning from the last 11 years of war in the Middle East. Most are re-entering civilian life without problems, although we’re also reading about individual cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, domestic violence … pick your symptom.

The nature of the news media to tell these stories when they happen makes it seem as if we’re dealing with an epidemic of mental health problems. This isn’t to say we aren’t dealing with those problems, but they probably aren’t as near epidemic proportions as we hear. It’s analogous to how the news reports crime: you only hear about crime when it occurs, not when it doesn’t. You could live in a perfectly quiet neighborhood for years, but if one person gets killed (for whatever reason), the TV is full of people wringing their hands about an epidemic of violence and “You don’t know who to trust any more.” News reports focus on what stands out, not on what happens day after day without change.)

But aside from what issues veterans may or may not be dealing with as they re-enter civilian life, there’s been a bit of change in civilian life as well. Call it the “veteranization” of society. It’s most readily apparent at sporting events, where it’s obligatory to parade a few veterans in front of the crowd and publicly thank them for their service. Veterans often get called first for boarding on aircraft, along with first-class passengers, families with young children and people in wheelchairs. Politicians often need to express some sort of gratitude at any event in which someone shows up in uniform.

This is to be expected, and it’s also appropriate to a certain extent. Veterans are here among us, many have been put in horrible situations and asked to do horrible things so the rest of us don’t have to. Meeting someone in uniform, or being made aware that someone was recently in a combat zone, immediately tells us civilians that there’s really nothing we’ve done recently that compares to their experience, either individually or as a measurement of our worth to society. Our most significant contribution to the greater good might have been to land a new sales contract in Ohio, or save our company money in procurement costs, or, at best, helped raise money in a 10k walk to cure cancer.

Those aren’t bad things to have done, but it doesn’t compare with saving your platoon or routing a nest of Taliban fighters that had been slaughtering girls trying to go to school in Afghanistan. So there’s a bit of sheepish guilt involved when the initial reaction is to say “Thank you for your service.” What else can you say?

But it’s also something, as the New York Times pointed out recently, that can really grate against some veterans because it is, in fact, a cop-out, and they know it. We don’t understand what that veteran has gone through recently. Even if we’ve read about that individual’s exploits in the war zone, we weren’t there, faced with the unending and unbearable stress of knowing a single slip-up could mean getting yourself or your friends killed. Couple this knowledge with the fact that not all service members believe in what they’re doing equally. Some were gung-ho, true believers, like Chris Kyle of “American Sniper” fame/infamy, while others like Pat Tillman questioned the rationale for their being there, or the wisdom of those that decided to send them to war in the first place.

There is already a tendency to treat veterans as damaged goods in our society. Part of this stems from the post-Vietnam era, and may be a mixture of our perceptions of some cases of real PTSD and collective guilt for not rallying behind the war or not “supporting the troops” more than was the case.

(As an aside, I think it’s a bit lazy to consider the anti-Vietnam War movement as a product of excessive liberalism, or even “liberal” at all. Organized opposition certainly originated from the left, but the mass protest movement — well, a lot of those hippies turned into Reagan voters and didn’t utter a peep when we invaded Grenada and Panama and launched a proxy war in Nicaragua. Protesting a war you might get drafted to go and fight and die in is self-preservation, and that’s a rather easy cause to support, especially for the narcissistic Baby Boom generation. Why go get killed when you can stay in college, smoke a lot of dope and get a lot of sex under the guise of “free love”? The real liberals were marching in Birmingham and Selma, and facing down the National Guard and their fire hoses and dogs.)

If there’s anything we should have learned from the Vietnam era, it’s that catastrophes can happen if people are reflexively deferential to the powerful, who might have another agenda entirely. By 2003, we seem to have completely unlearned that lesson, and allowed our leaders to drag us into yet another war for dubious purposes: a war that is now entering its 12th year, longer than our time in Vietnam from the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the surrender of Saigon. (Although, technically, the war for us started in 1955, and for the Vietnamese is started during World War II as a movement to expel the colonial rule of France and Japanese military dominance of Southeast Asia.)

In 2015 we’re in a different situation, but there are some similarities. Our military is professional, not conscripted. Every service member chose to be there, knowing they might be called upon to sacrifice their lives, without question, on the orders of someone sitting at a desk thousands of miles away. Just signing up takes a bit of bravery, if you think about it (although not everyone who signs up is fully cognizant of the risks, especially during peacetime, when joining the military may be seen as more of a leg up into the middle class through the GI Bill.)

But there have been times when guilt has been deployed as an effective recruiting tool. “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” was a recruiting slogan used by the British and we had Uncle Sam telling us that he wanted us in the army. That was a time when winning a war required marshalling an entire population into the war effort, into the factories for women, into uniform for men. We haven’t required that level of national sacrifice for a long time, and some of us are quite aware of that when we encounter one of the 1.3 million or so active-duty personnel in our daily lives. They comprise less than one percent of the population, and yet they stand in for the rest of us in foreign wars. Saying “thank you for your service” is the least we can do, it seems, but it’s also the most many of us do. We’re not, for example, “sacrificing” more of our tax money to support programs to end homelessness, to provide more addiction treatment, more job placement and career transition services, and so forth. Some of those services exist, but they’re not everywhere, and they’re definitely not reaching everyone. (And, to get a little political here, it does seem that the one party that publicly aligns itself with aggressive military action is the same one that doesn’t hesitate to cut benefits for those veterans before it would ask the well-off to pony up a bit more to support them.)

More to the point, civilians don’t know what it’s like to be in a war zone, and that’s something active-duty personnel and veterans are acutely aware of. The cost of an all-professional military has been an increased distance from the larger civilian society. The rest of us don’t know what sacrifice during wartime means, and consider higher gas prices to be an unbearable burden.

There is no easy answer to this problem. But it starts with making civilians more aware of what our military does, and making our people in uniform more willing to tell their stories to the rest of us. Empty gestures of gratitude might be appreciated by some, but they don’t help break down the barriers that we’ve erected between the armed services and civilian life. Saying “support the troops” in recent history has taken on a political bent, and one toward quashing dissent rather than providing actual support. The meaning in the broader culture is unambiguous: It’s “Shut up and support the troops,” not “Support the troops with higher taxes to provide social services to returning veterans.”

There are still true believers, in uniform and out, who never questioned the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq (I was adamantly opposed, for the record), or the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan (I was reluctantly in favor of it, to the extent that we succeeded in disrupting Al Qaida). There was talk a few years ago about launching military action against Syria (which didn’t have much public support from any quarter), and now we’re talking about escalating the war against the Islamic State, for which there seems to be more support, but it’s not a “hu-ah” chest thumping as much as a “eh-somebody’s-got-to-do-it-and-it-might-as-well-be-us.” (I will say this about George W. Bush: he did an incredible job of ginning up enthusiasm for a war that was absolutely the worst foreign policy mistake in a century, while Barack Obama has been abysmal at building support for a conflict that we have an obligation to see to its completion. “You broke it, you bought it,” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Smoke ’em out.”)

What needs to happen, regardless of whether or to what extent we go back into Iraq, is that we all need to understand more about what is happening with and to our service members. But it’s probably incumbent on our troops and vets to take the lead in telling their stories. No single story can capture the entirety of a war, and not all soldiers will want to talk about it. But when we start talking about supporting the troops again, we need to be doing it open-eyed, with the understanding that we might not like what we’re seeing. Only then, I think, can we be in a position to say “thank you.” The troops we’re thanking will at least know that this time we really mean it.

UPDATE (May 22, 2015)

After posting this, I went and asked a vet I know, my cousin David, who served in Vietnam in the Air Force. We’re probably political opposites (although I don’t know for sure, because like much of my somewhat diverse family, we tend to shy away from hot-button topics; we’re largely Scottish-Northern European mutts, but we fight like Italians when we get going). But I asked his opinion of this, since he’s active in the local veterans community where he lives, and he’s often in the position of talking with them soon after they arrive back in the U.S. from deployment. No matter how they might feel about the “thank-you-for-your-service” meme (because that’s really what it is, it gets passed around almost without thinking in the same way you might forward a funny cat picture), this is the nut of what David told me. When he meets a vet, or a soldier back from deployment, what he says is this: “Welcome home.” They all appreciate that.

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One thought on “Empty thanks

  1. Pingback: Memorial Day, 2016 | Spice Melange

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