"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Thank You For Your Service– The Meaningless ‘Have A Nice Day’ For Veterans

‘Thank you for your service’ has become the current variation of ‘Have A Nice Day’, said reflexively and with little sentiment to anyone with a military uniform. Soldiers in an all-volunteer army have chosen to run the risk for job training, to escape poverty, or to bide their time.  Most of the rest of us wonder why anyone would choose to fight a questionable war against an indefinite enemy in a hostile environment; so the throw-away ‘Thank you for your service’ is patronizing and condescending at best.   

Armistice Day was a mournful remembrance of the millions who died in World War I – those who charged the enemy lines to withering fire; who died from mustard gas, tetanus, diphtheria, and gangrene; who died from the cold, from suppurating wounds, or who were left wounded to die in No Man’s Land.

Image result for images barbed wire world war I trenches

Although Europeans celebrate VE Day and D-Day, Americans do not.  Perhaps we are more pessimistic about the world than the French give us credit for.  Perhaps we are not a nation of innocents who have never grown up, never learned from history, and are eternally and intolerably optimistic.  Perhaps we have stopped numbering wars because we know they will always happen.

Image result for european celebration VE Day

Fourth of July is a celebration of American victory.  Victory over the British, victory over over the Nazis, and victory over the Japanese. World War II was a heroic war.  A resolved, determined struggle between good and evil. Our soldiers were heroes because they were fighting a Holy War.

When the war was over, civilians were indeed thankful for their soldiers’ service.  Few were happy that age or infirmity kept them out of the conflict.  It was an Augustinian just war.  Everyone had a stake in its outcome. It not only was a war to defeat an aggressor, but one against an evil imperialism, an immoral regime worse than any in recent history.  Hitler was not just a dictator, he represented the very worst of humanity. Destroying him, his armies, and his storm troopers would be valorous and Christian.

Korea and Vietnam changed all that.  Korea was an unhappy stalemate which left no room for heroes or victory.  Vietnam was at best an ignorant mistake and at worse an act of immorality, savagery, and disregard for human life as wanton as that of any enemy. Veterans returned home to spit and ridicule.  The men who fought in the Ia Trang Valley, Khe Sanh, or Xuan Loc – drafted, conscripted, poor, and uneducated – got no ‘Thank you for your service’.  The American public conflated soldiers blown up in the jungle with Nixon, Westmoreland, and the generals at Da Nang.  Far from a ‘Thank you’ it was a ‘Fuck you’.

Once the memories of Vietnam had faded and some of the luster of American valor restored after the First Gulf War and the response to 9/11, American soldiers were once again on the side of right, God, Biblical vengeance, and exceptionalist morality. If not quite wars against evil, they were just.

We are now in an interstitial period – there are wars, but fought largely by drones.  Relatively few lives were lost in Iraq and Afghanistan; and unless you travel through the Deep South you are unlikely to see any any memorials, flags, or yellow ribbons. People of Meridian, Eutaw, and Aberdeen lost a lot of men in those wars – men who signed up partly because of long Southern military tradition but mostly because of poverty, dead end jobs, indifferent schools, and social exclusion. It made no different to small Southern towns whether or not the army was volunteer or conscript. Their children died over there.

Image result for images mississippi yellow ribbons flags

All of which makes the ‘Thank you for your service’ so hard to take, especially in communities which lost no one.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were someone else’s business, out of sight, out of mind. Most people flipped quickly over the photographs of KIA posted by the Washington Post; and if they thought of Afghanistan it was only to debate military or political strategy. Photographs of flag-draped coffins were verboten. Vietnam-style newsreels and photographs were rare, thanks to the Pentagon which, remembering how the images of soldiers getting cut down in rice paddies incensed the Left even further, agreed only to pool reporters embedded where the colonels decided.

Movies like Sniper, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty gave Americans some idea of modern war; but like all movies, they are seen and forgotten. Images of dead, dying, and wounded soldiers in Vietnam were all over the nightly news.  If some Americans hated these men for killing Vietnamese, millions more did indeed thank them for their service which was brutal, painful, and miserable.

Image result for images the hurt locker

So what is the proper response? What should we say to a returning veteran? The most obvious answer is ‘nothing’. He like the rest of us has done what time, circumstances, and fate have dictated.  Nothing more, nothing less. His choices are as determined as anyone’s and therefore of no value in an of themselves.

For those who feel that a veteran is the very best expression of American good and righteousness; and that his service is of a higher value than any other because he has fought for his country, then their thanks will be sincere and appreciated as such.

Image result for image patriotic flag soldiers

Matt Richtel, writing in the New York Times (2.22.15) about Hunter Garth, an American soldier who resents the facile appreciation of his service:

Mr. Garth appreciates thanks from someone who makes an effort to invest in the relationship and experience. Or a fellow vet who gets it. Several weeks ago, he visited one of his soul mates from the mud hut firefight, which they refer to as the Battle of the Unmarked Compound. They drank Jameson whiskey in gulps.

“We cried in each other’s arms until we both could tell each other we loved each other,” Mr. Garth said. “We each said, thank you for what you’ve done for me.”

Let’s face it.  No one really cares about soldiers.  In an all-volunteer army they do our jobs for us, let us off the hook, and take the bullets meant for us. If we did away with the all-volunteer army, there might be fewer wars.

I overheard a job interview a few years ago between an HR staff member and an Iraq veteran. “So tell me about your last job”, she said.

“I was in Iraq”.

“Oh”, she said, surely thinking Iraq, dumb choice, dumb war, bad idea; but before she moved quickly on to the next question said, “Thank you for your service.”

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