Thanking Me for My Service


W.J. Astore

A visitor to my home today saw my retirement plaque, which marks my twenty years of service in the US Air Force.  He immediately thanked me for my service to my country.

I appreciated his thanks because I took (and take) some pride in having served honorably in the military.  But people who thank me make me uncomfortable.  Why, you ask?

Because I believe it was an honor to serve my country.  It was an honor to be entrusted by the people of our great land with their trust.

So when people thank me, I always feel like thanking them back for allowing me to serve; for giving me this honor, this privilege.

Now, I write articles that are often critical of today’s military.  And there’s lots of things to criticize.  But I don’t believe in criticizing the military’s ethic of service, an ethic that should be based on humility and tinged with pride.  Because our nation’s ideal is a citizen-soldier military.  Note how the word “citizen” comes first.  We are not supposed to want a military composed of mercenaries or warriors.  Such a military is inconsistent with our democratic ideals.

Also inconsistent with our democratic ideals is our national tendency to idolize officers of high military rank.  You know, the generals and admirals, men like Tommy Franks or David Petraeus.  Why?  Because any citizen-civilian outranks any citizen-soldier in the military, generals included.

We must always remember that military members serve us: we the people.  We don’t serve them.  And we must remember as well that our president, a civilian commander-in-chief, is first and foremost exactly that: a civilian.  And that he’s not the commander-in-chief of all Americans; merely of those Americans who choose to don a uniform and take the oath of office (to include active duty, reserves, and National Guard members).

These are fundamental points (or they should be).  They are derived from our Constitution.  Our founders saw (reluctantly) the need for a military, and perhaps our greatest founder, George Washington, was also arguably our greatest military leader.  Not because he was a Napoleon, but precisely because he wasn’t.  He was our Cincinnatus, a citizen-soldier, with the emphasis firmly placed on citizen.  A man who placed his duty to the Constitution, and to the people, before himself and military vainglory.

If you wish to thank a service member for his or her service, by all means do so.  Just don’t be completely surprised when they deflect your thanks, or even thank you back for the honor and privilege of being able to serve in the name of the people to protect our highest ideals as enshrined in our Constitution.

14 thoughts on “Thanking Me for My Service

  1. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has explained the relevant psychological dynamic at work here:

    Nothing is more difficult than the recognition of dishonor at the very center of national authority. The quick tendency on the part of those resisting that recognition is to rally around desperately contrived images of pseudo-honor — to insist that ‘good men have made honest mistakes’ — and to mobilize this amorphous imagery via the mass media on behalf of blocking precisely the moral probing and self-questioning that might initiate the kind of shift that would call forth an ancient principle of responsibility dating from the beginnings of Western civilization, one all too rarely upheld but never fully forgotten: namely, that mortal and fallible men of mixed virtue, at a critical moment, have taken their people down the wrong ethical path, and have had their honor — their integrity and intactness — profoundly compromised.” — Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans, neither victims nor executioners (1972)

    The phrase “thank you for your service,” thus produces in many veterans a feeling of unease, if not mortification, because we once submitted to “dishonor at the very center of national authority” and did its bidding, thereby making it possible for “mortal and fallible men and women of mixed [if any] virtue” to take our nation and its people “down the wrong ethical path” to disaster and ruin. So the phrase “thank you for your service” in fact serves as a “desperately contrived image of pseudo-honor” around which “those resisting this recognition” can rally with a clear conscience. If more Americans had any idea what the U.S. military has actually done over the past sixty years, at least some of them would blush with shame and say: “Sorry for your service” — and mean every word of that abject apology.

    Personally, I do not feel the least bit proud to have served in the U.S. military. I simply endured my years of penurious indentured servitude and tried to get whatever useful experience or knowledge that I could from it. I got lucky and survived. A great many more of my fellow citizens — not to mention millions of my country’s foreign victims — did not. I take no pride in war and I feel nothing but contempt for Make-work Militarism, the term I prefer to use in describing the U.S. military establishment today. From the top down, they defend nothing but wealth and privilege while threatening everything that works for an honest living and hopes for a better life. “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” The same old same old same old story. I feel genuinely sorry that I ever had anything to do with it — not that my own government ever gave me much of a choice.

  2. The problem with the military these days is that the military does not defend “American values”. We do not defend; we attack, occupy, and destroy.

  3. WW II
    No one thanked us for our service. We were just welcomed home by mothers and wives and families. No one talked of “heroes” nor of ‘serving our country’. We did it because we had to and we clearly saw the necessity. That ‘necessity’ has not existed in the interminable wars this country has been involved in since 1945. They have all been wars of choice. Choice of the rulers of our country in the name of “freedom and democracy” but in reality for the dirty business of markets, oil, and suppressing ideologies not of our ruling class’s liking.

    In those years we were “in” for the “duration” and all we talked about was’ when we would get the hell out’. Whether we were in the infantry, the air corps, tank corp, navy, we bitched and wanted out. There was no feeling of honor being ‘in’. Generally, we would feel good about the unit we were in but it wasn’t a feeling of honor but rather of competence in our job, which was ultimately killing.

    The “honor” we got was from our government which, when the war ended ( as they did in the good old days) gave all of us poor boys from the depression years the great GI Bill; the 52-20 Club (a year of unemployment insurance @ $20/ week – a lot of money in those days); or $10,000 to buy a new home ( yes you actually could buy a decent house for that): or $200, towards each tuition payment for a full college education.

    Today we have a cowardly, self interested, and niggardly congress under the sway of the super rich and military-industrial complex who lust for perpetual war and hypocritically under fund the Veterans Administraton and encourage the military brass to use excuses to deprive veterans with PTSD the services of the VA. The rich do not send their children to war, and neither do our congressional representatives.

    Let’s not kid ourselves, the ultimate business model of any military throughout the world is killing. None train to protect poor widows and orphans.

    U.S. Army Air Corps 1943-1946

  4. Militaries exist to fight and win wars. There’s no doubt about that. They are in the business of killing, and it’s a horrible business. That said, killing is not all of what militaries are about. The U.S. military is often involved in humanitarian operations. The U.S. military often saves lives. We must not see the military in one-dimensional terms, either as a band of selfless heroes or of selfish killers.

    There is nobility in the military oath of office — of supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution. The military is supposed to be a servant of the people — public servants who defend America and its laws against harm.

    The ordinary GI is not to blame for how our military has been misused. That said, it is his to reason why, not just to do or die. Soldiers in a democracy have a moral responsibility to disobey immoral/illegal orders, orders that are contrary to our moral code and our Constitution. Those soldiers who do so are truly heroes.

    It is easy, perhaps too easy, to deprecate any profession in society. Should we deprecate all priests, and all religion, for the heinous sins of a few priests, and for the often unwise and less-than-moral policies of the Vatican?

    Let us not exalt the soldier, but also let us not excoriate him (or her).

    • “Let us not exalt the soldier, but also let us not excoriate him (or her).” — wjastore

      With all due respect to the good professor, I’ll never forget reading in some popular magazine of the day where U.S. Air Force General Chuck Yeager — the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier — had this to say about us Vietnam veterans: “Those boys in Vietnam just had something missing in their characters.” I never had a dirty fucking hippie spit on me, but I certainly felt as though a rather famous Air Force general had. So I have to say that some soldiers deserve excoriating; and if we excoriated more of them when they deserve it, then perhaps they wouldn’t do and say such execrable things.

      For a period after America’s failed War on South East Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), the American society in general — especially the conservative, flag-waving business community — pretty much considered us Vietnam veterans drug addicts and “losers.” This prejudicial attitude persisted right up until the embassy hostage crisis in Iran during the Carter presidency. Then it began to look like the United States might get into another shooting war and would need a ready supply of cheap cannon fodder. So people started talking up the military as something a poor person might want to look into as a real patriotic adventure. “Be All That You Can Be — in the Army.” That load of concentrated crap. This cynical and condescending attitude has persisted up to the present day, reflected in the obligatory “thank you for your service” canard which in fact only serves to mask the real “fuck you and your service” attitude that Americans truly feel towards those who fight and lose our never-ending wars against impoverished, barely armed nobodies in places few, if any, Americans could locate on a map. In truth, Americans look upon the U.S. soldier as a combination gladiator/restaurant-waiter who works and dies for pennies in the hope of an occasional dollar tip.

      As for religion and the organized churches, I don’t see where these institutions deserve a pass, either. The churches and their priests and ministers practically always line up behind governments and their wars. A few isolated cases of religious rebellion for peace do exist from time to time — like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. — but not enough to offset the overwhelming proclivity of hierarchical religious bureaucracies to “praise the lord and pass the ammunition.” As the late “reverend” Jerry Falwell put it: “God is Pro-War.” The Crusader popes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries — not to mention the right-wing rabbis of the Apartheid Zionist Entity (or, Tenth Crusade) — would certainly agree.

      We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.
      We fight because we fight because we fight.
      The ones atop the pyramid can only rule through fear,
      Which means — to them — that any war seems right.

      • Well, Yeager was a great pilot — and that’s about it. The moral rot that invaded the U.S. military wholesale during Vietnam was a symptom of the wrongness of that war. Cynicism and opportunism and careerism at the very top permeated the lower ranks, spreading like a cancer. Most of the troops simply wanted to survive; that was there cause, and who can blame them?

        Yeager had no clue about that. Most Americans didn’t either. The Tet Offensive helped to reveal that the official story was a pack of lies. That, and My Lai, the Pentagon Papers, the secret bombing of Cambodia, and so on.

        Our leaders seem hellbent on destroying the idealism of the military; and when a military starts to question its honor, its reason for being, you witness a degeneration, a slackening, in a word, dishonor.

        Dishonorable acts are generated by dishonorable causes. Dishonest policies generate dishonorable acts. Our troops, in this case, are not to blame, or they’re not entirely to blame. They try to do their duty while staying alive.

    • OK. Let’s take a look at the two hierarchical professions, religious and military, that we are discussing. Is it a “ few bad apples” as the hierarchy claims or is it a rotten leadership that shapes a profession.?

      How long have the Catholic Popes and Bishops lied and hidden pedophilia in that profession? Probably for a few centuries. Doesn’t even this apparently open minded Pope Francis still tread lightly around the issue and as a consequence imply that the problem is solved? And how come, the church hasn’t opened up to priests getting married which would go a long way to solving a problem (homosexuality) which they hypocritically condemn outside the church?

      And our military? Sexual assault or promiscuity within the ranks and in the officer caste apparently is escalating with the introduction of women into line operations. And how did the Joint Chiefs react in recent congressional hearings on moving the judicial judgments out of the immediate chain of command? Like the church they opposed civil or ‘non Bishops (?) judging “their” people. So in the last year we had the most vaunted five star, David Petraeus screwing his personal biographer, a captain I believe. And just this week a two star general for the first time not being just summarily asked to retire ( with pension at reduced rank) but sentenced to 20 years in the pen for sexual assault. Hozanna!

      At Nuremburg the “ few bad apples” or ” just following orders” defense didn’t work. The institution was fundamentally flawed so Goering, Himmler,and the institution were found guilty.

      I guess I come out questioning whether both of these very authoritarian professions are breeding grounds of ethical behavior. I believe that people who join these professions who have been well grounded in ethical behavior through their family and education will generally retain and can even enhance their ethics, but on the whole I think that the majority who enter these professions with less than a full kit of personal responsibility can become monsters. A few may learn self discipline but that is only one step on the road to ethical behavior.

  5. Well said. ….
    ” It is easy… to deprecate any profession in society”. Nevertheless each profession has a hierarchical structure and when the leadership is corrupted who or what else is there to blame?

    • Again with all due respect to the good professor, It seems to me that the nationally obligatory mantra, “thank you for your service,” rather starkly contradicts any assertions about the ease with which one might deprecate the military profession. I maintain that just the opposite situation obtains, wherein recitation of the mantra serves — by design — to make any necessary deprecation of the U.S. military establishment difficult if not impossible. Most Americans would find my jaundiced view of the U.S. military nothing less than blasphemy. But then, I actually served in the U.S. military whereas hardly any of my fellow citizens have.

      As for where responsibility lies in the corrupted leadership of the hidebound military hierarchy: “Kiss up, kick down,” and “Shit rolls downhill,” pretty much cover the notorious SNAFU and FUBAR. As well, Parkinson’s Law and the Peter Principle provide the analytical explanation of bureaucratic inertia. Certainly, some in the military profession — confusing logistics with strategy — can competently move men and material from Point A to Point B (with no concern for the costs involved), but since the U.S. military has made such a royal mess of so many earthly places, one can only wish that they had gotten lost travelling from Bakersfield to Barstow.

      Anyway, as George Bernard Shaw once observed: “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.” An understandable sentiment coming from an Irish free thinker “angered by what he perceived as the exploitation of the working class” and determined that “no memorial to him should ‘take the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice.'”(Wikipedia). Obviously, I don’t think too highly of the military and the church as “professions.” I think that the Peace Corps would serve as a more than adequate substitute for both.

  6. The Catholic Church and the U.S. Military are powerful hierarchical institutions with high ideals. They are also composed of human beings with all the flaws of the same. Powerful institutions serve to amplify the individual, both in good and bad qualities. What is the solution, gentlemen? Eliminating all powerful institutions? Don’t they protect us, at least in part, from anarchy? Don’t they do good as well as evil?

    Having been raised Catholic and having served in the military, I find that these institutions can do good. They are imperfect; they concentrate power, which is dangerous. But at their best their ideals do inspire. They often serve noble causes. They are often also deeply flawed.

    What needs to happen is a reformation. The Church must return to Love Thy Neighbor. The military must return to serving our Constitution. A moral reordering. It’s been done before. It can be done again.

  7. I served as an infantryman in Vietnam late in the war – 1970 & 1971. Whether that service adds weight to any opinion I have, or if it’s simply another opinion allowed by the 1st amendment, here are my thoughts. I DO say to the current crop of ‘troops,’ “I appreciate your service.” I do that simply because I DO appreciate their service. There are too few volunteering for that service and the burden is falling too heavily on those few. I was also a volunteer, (i.e. not a draftee,) although I did not volunteer for infantry.

    I did my job. Like many others, I fought, not for flag and country, but to keep those next to me alive – as they did for me. When I returned home, there was no thanks, there was no appreciation. Even the veterans from previous wars made it clear that I was not welcome to join their ranks. While I believe that they should have known better, I won’t bother to debate that now. I had done my job and there was nothing I did in Vietnam that I need to be ashamed of.

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