Thanking Our Troops for their Service

Author's photo, July 2014, of the American Flag at Dusk

Author’s photo, July 2014, of the American Flag at Dusk

W.J. Astore

I served for twenty years in the Air Force.  Service in the military involves sacrifice even when combat isn’t involved, but it also conveys privileges and provides opportunity, or at least it did so for me.  I can’t recall people thanking me for my service when I wore a uniform, nor did I expect them to.  I just saw myself as doing my duty to the best of my ability, and therefore deserving of no special thanks or commendation.

At TomDispatch.com, former Army Ranger Rory Fanning talks about his discomfort with the thank you parade directed at “our” troops.  His honest words are a reminder that a thank you repeated again and again loses its meaning, especially when it’s appropriated by megastars and sponsored by corporations.  Think, for example, of that Budweiser ad during last year’s Super Bowl that featured a returning LT.  We see him greeting his pretty wife at the airport, then we cut to a surprise parade in his honor down Main Street USA complete with the Budweiser Clydesdales and teary-eyed veterans.  The sentiment, however honest to many of the celebrants, is cheapened as heart strings are tugged to sell beer.  Or consider those Bank of America ads for wounded warriors airing during this year’s World Series.  Images of wounded troops continuing to triumph in spite of war injuries are appropriated to associate a huge bank with the sacrifices endured by ordinary GIs.  Again, however well-intentioned such ads may be, heart strings are being tugged by a bank with a dubious record of sympathy for the little guy and gal.

As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich has noted, elaborate thank you ceremonies can be a form of cheap grace in which Americans clap themselves on the back in spasms of feel-good celebratory pageantry.  Some of these celebrations are so over the top in their flag-waving thanks that you just can’t help having darker thoughts.  Is this a recruitment video?  Are we even meant to think at all or just gush with pride?  Are we simply meant to bask in the reflected glow of the medals on the chests of our young men and women in uniform?

We thank our troops for complicated reasons as well as simple ones.  The simple are easy to write about: genuine thanks, from one person to another, no megastars, no corporations.  Just a handshake and a nod or a few kind words.  I’ve had people thank me in that way since I retired from service, and I appreciate it and respond graciously.

But the complicated reasons  – well, these reasons are not as easy to write about.  The guilt of those who avoid service.  Pro forma thanks.  The thanks that comes from people who believe their involvement with the military both starts and ends there.  The related idea that if one thanks the troops, one has done one’s bit for the war (whichever war our president says we’re fighting today).

More disturbingly is the thanks that allows us all to deny the reality of America’s wars (the reality of all wars): the sordidness of wartime bungling and mismanagement and violence and murder.  Often the latter is drowned out by the bugle calls of thanks! thanks! thanks! coming from the cheering multitudes.

My father taught me “an empty barrel makes the most noise.”  I think that’s true even when the noise is presented as thanks to our troops.

5 thoughts on “Thanking Our Troops for their Service

    • Among some people, Mike, the sentiment might be: “We know war is cruel, so thank you for your service in a cruel war.” Or: “Thank you for protecting us from the ravages of war and all its cruelties.” The problem is that America’s wars today are wars of choice; they are also wars that are apparently without end. You can’t blame the average private for that. Look to the brass and to “our” government and all of its strategic bungling and vainglory.

      • I do not agree with the statement that Americans “know” the cruelty of war. Quite to the contrary, they have proven abysmally and wilfully ignorant of it. And those of us Americans who have experienced the cruelty of war have proven either unwilling or unable — not always through lack of trying — to educate our fellow citizens as to war’s true nature. As Sheldon Wolin pointed out in Democracy, Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism:

        “What attracted decision-makers to choosing ‘war’ [as America’s governing paradigm] is that Americans of the twentieth century had no direct experience of it and hence were receptive to having warfare imagined for them — and Hollywood happily obliged with ‘war movies.’ Save for actual combatants sent overseas and economic shortages at home, World War II was unexperienced. After 1945 ‘war’ was akin to a tabula rasa on which opinion-makers and governmental decision makers were free to constitute its meaning in terms that pretty much suited their purposes, allowing them to set the character of public debate and to acquire a vastly enlarged range of governmental powers — powers that, when they did not violate the Constitution, deformed it. For almost half a century, from the late 1940s to the early 1990s, war served as the omnipresent background in the imaginary constructed by news- and movie-makers, television producers, and the rhetoric of politicians. The meaning of war was given a plasticity that allowed the new image-makers to set its parameters as they pleased.”

        The American public has not demanded an accurate understanding of war, but rather, has passively accepted a painless, vicarious, and deceptive depiction of “heroic” deeds and “noble” sacrifices that masks the actual killing and destruction carried out — most cruelly — by career mercenaries (both officer and enlisted) loyal to their jobs, uniforms, units, and service branches while “professionally” indifferent to any particular “war” against any particular “enemy,” regardless of any actual threat to the United States or its Constitution. No one in the U.S. military has done a single thing to defend the United States against any real enemy since the end of World War II, yet the U.S. military has carried out acts of wanton cruelty resulting in the deaths and homelessness of millions. I see no need to thank anyone who has served in the U.S. military — and I include myself — for whatever we did to aid and abet that horrible legacy.

        The time for the cruel truth about war has long-since come and gone. Only the cheap fantasies remain in America. I counsel the expression of no gratitude for that.

  1. I firmly believe that democracy survives and flourishes on skepticism of power not militarism. Enough of the talk about what we owe or don’t owe to those who take a job in the military at a time of illegal imperialistic expansionism. Let us instead talk about what we owe to those very brave souls who blow the whistle on government malfeasance, who use their conscience and bodies to bring attention to government support of dangerous nuclear and fossil fuel activities, to those who march in protest against racist police brutality, and all of the other assaults on our civil liberties.

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