Recently Paul Miller wrote an article in The Federalist criticizing those who thank military personnel for their service. He feels the thanksgiving rite comes across as patronizing, perfunctory, syrupy, or a bit over-the-top in its hero-worship. Rather, supporters of military personnel should show true support by (a) fixing veterans’ health care, (b) learning lessons from the wars we’ve fought, and (c) seeing our wars through to victory.
As a soldier in the U.S. Army myself, I respectfully and completely disagree.
I joined the Army later in life, at the age of 42, as a chaplain. The first time someone thanked me for my service, I felt completely undeserving. I was received into the Army by direct commission, meaning I became an officer after saying my oath to another chaplain, a friend of mine who had a few moments after his Monday evening church service. That was that—no basic training, no advanced individual training, no drill sergeants barking at me. One day I was a citizen; the next I was a captain in the Army with people thanking me for my service as if I’d just been dodging IEDs in the suck.
I didn’t even know how to respond. “You’re welcome!” or “Hey, no problem!” don’t really live up to the intended gravity of the moment. Sometimes I toyed with the idea of giving the steely thousand-yard stare, playing into the stereotype for fun. But per a battalion commander’s suggestion, I’ve settled on a simple, “Thank you for your support.”
Even Reservists Spend Hours Away
If at first the ritual seemed strange and unwarranted, I now welcome it as a wonderful part of our national liturgy. I’m no Chesty Puller—light years from it—but I did some calculations recently. Even though I’ve only been an Army reservist for three years and have never deployed, during those years I’ve been away from my family for a total of 30 weeks, or roughly six months, which is the equivalent of a good-sized deployment.
Many professionals have that sort of schedule, but keep in mind that this is my part-time job. That doesn’t factor prep time at home, late night, off-duty calls from soldiers in need, and the weekly exercise regimen. This isn’t playing the victim card. We all know this is what we signed up for. But it articulates the sense of duty the typical soldier has to his country and its citizens.
So, when I’m at an airport in my uniform on my way out, living off of texted pictures of my kids, hearing about the things they’re doing without me, or how my daughter’s mood changes for the worse when I’m gone, and someone comes up and thanks me for my service, it means something.
Military Service Isn’t Only Dull
Miller assumes such people falsely think military life is a hero’s life of “super-human feat[s] of courage and physical prowess.” I disagree. Most people know exactly what military life is. They know it’s “banal and unadventurous.” It’s precisely because people know this that they take the time to support us.
People aren’t idiots. If people’s familiarity with military life isn’t informed by real-life military personnel, certainly they know media, which is heavily biased toward portraying military life as a lot of sitting around being bored. How long has Beetle Bailey been waiting to go to war? Still, I think most people have a healthy understanding of the flip side of “hurry up and wait.”Although a decreasing number of service members have been deployed, especially among the lower-enlisted, those who have deployed have given up an awful lot to serve our country.
I joke about the thousand-yard stare, but the first time I experienced it was when I listened to a chaplain talk about his estranged son, whom he was convinced suffered because he had been away on deployments. It broke my heart, enough to give up all testosterone-induced desires leave my children behind for a 12- to 15-month deployment.
As a chaplain, too, I don’t know how often I’ve heard a soldier say, “My wife left me while I was on a deployment.”
The physical demands take a toll on the body. Paratroopers will tell you they lose an average of an inch of height through the impact on their vertebrae, among other problems. Many soldiers have back issues or hearing loss due to training. And how many adults have to train regularly to pass a test twice a year, meeting standards for a two-mile run, sit-ups, and push-ups?
Please Don’t Politicize Every Human Interaction
Miller is comparing the apples of troop support with the oranges of national policy. Can’t someone make a kind gesture of goodwill based on a causal link between the life military personnel embrace and the freedom and peace he enjoys? Does the bystander really need to have the right opinions about specific national policy?
Isn’t this how the victimology hucksters operate, who politicize every human interaction by categorizing a subset of people as victims, then parlaying a guilt-ridden fantasy of “what have you really done for these people you claim to care for?” into an endless stream of benefits for said victim subset?
Victimhood hucksterism is the way of the eternally ungrateful, the perpetually dissatisfied. We call those “liberals,” but it’s one way to make a living, and a highly effective one at that. Set the group you represent as victims of some “system.” Then view everyone else as avatars of the collective mindset perpetuating that system through their microaggressions. Insert a good guilt-inducing sermon, and turn on the spigot of benefits as “oppressors” pay off their guilt with indulgences. The racket works brilliantly, so long as the goal is total obeisance to a political agenda that never materializes, generating an endless gravy train.
So now people can’t even say “thank you” to a soldier without contemplating their relationship to the soldier vis a vis politics, how much they have supported reforming veterans’ care or taken a position on troop strength in Iraq or Afghanistan?
Is Miller really expecting people to come up to him and say, “Hey, I’m going to organize a march to reprioritize veteran health care to focus on those with disabilities related to service, giving new options to veterans such as subsidized care through private providers. Of course, such care would be based on tiered eligibility calculations for each veteran. And I’ll march for dividing the Veterans Health Administration, half becoming a nonprofit corporation competing with private providers, the other half overseeing payments and insurance for veterans using private providers.”
That’s not the way real people work. Real people don’t devote great portions of their day thinking about the political angles of their interactions. They’re thinking about changing oil in their cars, getting their kids to ballet, and remembering to pick up milk at the grocery store.
Letting People Live Is the Point of the Military
It’s liberals who embrace the idiom of historic American evangelicalism (good progressives, both) and see people living their lives as an occasion for a guilt-induced sermon, like John Lennon’s Christmas song: “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” Bought my children presents and celebrated Advent; what’s it to you?
It’s also like the painful Matthew West song, “If not us, then who / If not me and you / Right now, it’s time for us to do something / If not now, then when will we see an end to all this pain?” Puke. Most people are too busy living out their God-given vocations to foolishly attempt to “change the world.” Don’t make them feel guilty for that. It’s unbecoming, to say nothing of millenarian (but that’s another story).
So if someone happens to take a moment out of his day to step over to me and thank me for my service, because they’ve made the principled determination to acknowledge how service to country has benefited them, how cool is that?
If it comes across as perfunctory, inauthentic, patronizing, or pro forma, why should this bother me? As someone from a liturgical background, I understand that going through the motions of a ritual is not about the acting skills of the person doing the ritual—how good they are at making habitual behavior seem fresh and genuine every time (like the heavy-breathing “Lord, we just”-a-thons some have to go through every time they pray)—but about the principles driving that ritualistic action.
I’ve had children come over and thank me, while a mother or father stands in the background directing the action. That’s awesome, and driven by a desire to teach children about a universe bigger than their own, where men and women die and get maimed so they can enjoy a world not like the one experienced by, say, Christian children in Syria.
Let liberals see grievances lurking under every rock. Conservatives are grateful people. So if you happen to thank me for my service, I thank you for your support!