It ain’t what happens here that’s important. It’s what’s happening back there. Lieutenant, you’d hardly know there’s a war on. It’s in the papers, and the college kids run around screaming about it, but that’s it. Airplane drivers still drive their airplanes. Businessmen still run their businesses. College kids still go to college. It’s like nothing really happened, except to other people. It isn’t touching anybody but us. —Staff Sergeant Gilliland, “Fields of Fire,” by James Webb.
All of us in or recently out of military uniform have experienced the reflexive thanks of the nation. We are thanked for our service, both individually and en masse, on television, at baseball games, in church, at the bar, at the diner; by rock stars, presidents, CEOs, the elderly, little kids.
We know that all of you appreciate what we do. We know that you support our military forces and that (more importantly) you love our country. We know how patriotic you are…several times a day, every day, you tell us.
But it is now time for all of us to move on. Here is why.
1. We All Volunteered
“The object ought to be having a good army rather than a large one.” —George Washington, 1780.
We have been at war for 14 years. Every single person in uniform in the United States of America volunteered to serve during a time of war. Active-duty people volunteered knowing full well they could be deployed into a combat zone. Reservists volunteered knowing they could be pulled out of their civilian jobs, away from their families, and sent far away on short notice. No one is in the military against his or her will.
In response to the violent protest against the war in Vietnam, and its concomitant dragooning of young men into uniform to fight a war they didn’t want in a land they didn’t know, the government ended the draft in 1973.
Occasional calls to reinstate it have come from some some strange quarters, to include both the Left, such as Marine veteran Rep. Charles Rangel, and the Right, such as future Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. These arguments do have some resonance, in two areas.
First, they echo the founders, who believed that raising an army, whether to defend the homeland or to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, required a whole-government effort. In the 1700s, the fledgling republic did indeed need every able-bodied man to carry a musket if these colonies were to fight off the British. But not since 1945, when the entire nation did indeed go into total war, has the United States needed all its men for military force.
Second, reinstating a draft does have one key benefit: it slows down the rush to war in which too many White Houses engage. If everyone in the country faces either knowing a young man at risk of being sent to fight, or being that young man himself, the national will must be considered in foreign and military policy. People become much more interested in something when it affects them directly. Such questioning of government action, and forcing officials to explain why the country is going to war, is right and proper.
Yet these arguments are academic and philosophy exercises. There is no draft, and the vociferous opposition to conscription—led, by the way, by the uniformed military—guarantees there won’t be one anytime soon. Taking heavily armed teenagers into combat, the true life and death event of anyone’s life, is demanding enough with gung-ho volunteers. Dragging along those who don’t want to be there is a burden too large to consider, and those who commanded units with draftees during Vietnam can educate the rest of us on how well that works.
So everyone you thank for their service is there by choice. The military, in the words of P.J. O’Rourke, “gives people with military-style personalities a place to work.” It also gives the nation a place to focus as it balances its anger at a foreign war against its appreciation for those sent to fight it.
2.Thanking Lets You Off the Hook
Thanking veterans for their service is like flying the flag in front of your house or going to confession: you are immunized. Behavior and belief separate in the minds of Americans and, like kneeling in the confessional, thanking veterans for what they represent lets you off the hook for what you have—or haven’t—done.
No one should be forced to serve in the military. In fact, the military exists precisely to ensure Americans can do pretty much what they want. You can work on hedges, or work on hedge funds, or anything in between.
But you must own it. Our buddy David Brooks in “Bobos in Paradise” divides working Americans into two groups: those who help people—nurses, firefighters, doctors, teachers, Marines, cops—and those who screw people—lawyers, bankers, stockbrokers, CEOs. As with kneeling in the confessional, thanking me for my service while doing none yourself does not wipe away your sins.
Every time I am thanked for my service, I stop myself from asking, “And what about yours?” I do not want you to also serve the military, but I do want you to serve our country, your city, your town, the local school. What are you doing to help? Are you volunteering at the hospital? The soup kitchen? Are you helping that elementary-school teacher in the inner city, the one who is buying her students pencils from her own pocket because the school district cannot? Are you donating to the fire department down the street?
We are all of us Americans. Each serves in his or her own way. You don’t need to thank me—your service should be enough.
3. You Are Thanking the Wrong People
All veterans are not alike. Everyone in the military is not a combat veteran; in fact, most in uniform are not. The military is a calling and a patriotic duty for some; for others, it is simply a job. For most, it is a bit of both.
There is a reason that recruiting ads come in two flavors: one set wave the flag and challenge you to serve your country, the others promise you money for college and skills for future employment. People join for different reasons, as with any other profession. There are just as many jerks and idiots in the military as there are anywhere else. None are sainted.
Most of us who have gone overseas, even into a combat zone, have never heard a shot fired in anger. We volunteered, we went, we did our jobs, we came back. And that is pretty much it.
As with most vocations, the person talking the loudest about his adventures and achievements is the one who did the least. The reverse is also true: that quiet guy off in a corner, drinking a beer alone while watching the baseball game, may allow if pressed that he was “in the military.” He won’t tell you that he killed a lot of people, that he was scared to death and did things both heroic and stupid, that what he did would make a great movie. In general, the quieter the guy, the tougher and scarier he is. He doesn’t want to be thanked. He wants to be left alone.
Take note: most of us are somewhat ashamed of our lack of combat. No matter what you did, someone in the highly competitive combat-arms military has done more. Go and read the interviews with the shy young men who have been awarded the Medal of Honor in the past few years (can you name even one?). Every one of them, to a man, says the exact same thing: I didn’t do anything unusual. I could have done more. All I can think about is the guys we lost that day. The guys around me were the real heroes. They would have done the same for me.
Here is where the military does differ from other professions. Those professions of modesty are not for the benefit of the cameras and headlines. They are real. This is actually how these guys think, because good, tough drill instructors many years ago pounded into them that the team is what matters: the unit, the service, the country. The Spartans called this “the good of the line”: you fight for country and home, but you really fight, minute by minute, for the men to your left and right.
A veteran’s service in a war is significant not because we are special, but precisely because we aren’t. We went to high school with you, played on the junior varsity football team, got turned down by the pretty girl for the prom, got caught by the cops drinking underage. We are the same people from the same neighborhood you are.
This is the strength of America: the citizen-soldier, called from the cities and the farms and the suburbs, trained by professionals but representing us all, sent to do our country’s business. We volunteered, we went, we did what the nation asked. We did our duty, and we asked for—we deserve—nothing more.