Honoring current and former service members should be a nonpartisan proposition. I will do my best here to keep it so. But neglect of veterans’ issues, whether explicit or semantic, bespeaks a politics of exclusion that no party—and no community—should accept.
Now, I’m not perfect and I shouldn’t throw stones myself. This Veteran’s plans for Veterans Day didn’t involve visiting with any of his brothers and sisters or serving those of us who are less fortunate. I took the more prosaic goal of applying for jobs (transition seemed like an overwrought bureaucratic term when I was in; now that I’m getting out I see what an understatement it truly was) and catching up on research and writing for a few colleagues. But I’m still serving the family of a Veteran, namely my own. So at least there’s that.
Still, I can’t help notice that in the political theology* of these United States, Veterans Day, like so many other national holidays (remember the provenance of the term “holiday”), now sees its significance eroded by the shifting currents of post-everything-ist cultural redefinition (no judgment, just observation). As GDPs and populations grew so that the economic and human cost of war was less by its percentages, the military and Veteran community became disconnected from civil society at large, and this in turn began to affect the political marketplace. Meanwhile, the growth of news media and *ahem* education meant that felt responsibility for political opinions of war diversified beyond policy makers and American-ethnocentrist viewpoints, for better or for worse.
As a consequence, detachment from and apathy towards military service meant that attitudes towards those who served and esteem of the profession of arms as a whole fell precipitously in the national consciousness. Twelve years after 9/11 and following the eight-plus years spent in (and on) Iraq, the resurgence of respect for our Armed Forces has proven muted at best. Policy and personal deportment alike cannot escape the feelings of society as a whole. In certain circles, a socioeconomic condescension belies the “polite” praise given to warfighters and Veterans when “appropriate”, as on Veterans Day for example.
Part of that downward shift in respect is the impossibility of remaining in an economy where military officers out-earned NFL athletes, among other physically and intellectually gifted elites. The military has defended the economy well enough that other choices of comparative advantage in careers have evolved; “CPT Mark Zuckerberg, Company Commander” (he’s still only 29 years of age) had absolutely no chance of happening after the end of the military draft in 1973. There is no moral wrong to accuse: that’s the way our Founding Fathers would have wanted it. But it is somewhat more troubling if the Facebook boss doesn’t make moves to appreciate the vicissitudes of his peers. (Google, if nothing else, has altered its logo appropriately.) If his recruiters aren’t making an effort to bring transitioning Veterans out to Palo Alto, the company does suffer an opportunity cost in talent for the oversight.
Now, some people would read the above and their instinct would be to defend Facebook as against an overweening special-interest group looking for a free lunch. (Obviously, the country already has enough of those.) To falsify my propositions, then, one argues that Mark Zuckerberg does not owe Veterans on a political-economic or moral (or technological) basis, and that there is no economic profit to be found in the Veteran talent pool (at least for Facebook, Inc.). The problem is, I don’t see a way to advance those arguments without engaging in political, cultural, or socioeconomic denigration of our service men and women past, present, and future.
Perhaps one advances the argument that Veterans “knew what they were getting into” or worse, “already get too many privileges” and even “hero worship”. One need not engage in too many discussions to find this kind of myopia and elitism in far too many places. But here’s the thing. Military service is difficult and uncomfortable compared to modern American life, and war is unknowably traumatic on the body and soul of the warfighter. If this wasn’t true, more people would be willing to serve and find out about it, wouldn’t they?
So finally we come to the culturally elitist argument, though it will disguise itself as addressing political economy or social justice. But these too are falsehoods levied with varying degrees of malice. If one assumes that military service caters in its recruitment to “the lower classes” and minorities; that its standards are lower than in other industries; that the educational, physical, and commercial achievements of service members and Veterans lag behind those of society at large; that it requires less critical thinking in favor of “blind obedience”—in other words, that the military is for people ontologically Other from oneself and one’s beliefs—one is already guilty as sin of ingratitude. We are all Americans, and we are defended by other Americans who chose an experience that the rest of us won’t ever have, because we won’t have to. It shouldn’t be complicated any further.
If this seems simple, perhaps you haven’t observed its failure recently enough. Practicum (name changed) via, ironically enough, Facebook:
Thank you to all my friends and family who have served in the military. I especially think about my grandfather, who told me stories of fighting Nazi submarines as a Commodore in the British (then Indian) Navy. However, I still think the greatest way to honor our armed forces is by not utilizing them for unjust wars. My pride in the abilities and sacrifice of these folks does not always extend to pride in what they are tasked to do. And I learned that from the years of emails [Greg] sent me from Iraq. Thanks buddy, you’re the best.
In theory, the person posting is a close friend of my family. Also in theory, she respects those who have served. So what’s wrong with this picture? On its face it is a plausible, if qualified, statement of gratitude for Veterans’ efforts, made authentically and nobly in spite of political objections. But there’s no real meaning here: neither a truth relationship to reality or even ideas, nor any indication of action. Intentional or not, it is an almost self-parodic call to undermine the significance of service, masquerading as an acknowledgement to the same.
How are we to unpack from this statement how Veterans ought to be treated in view of the fact that they have already merited a national holiday?
Which wars are “unjust”, for those of us not fluent in the regional cultural shorthand? Who decides this? Are Veterans of particular wars not equal to others? What in her friend’s correspondence are we left to infer that granted her the certainty that recent counterinsurgency operations supporting the War on Terror are “unjust”? Does international intervention require prompting by conflict on the scale of World War II before there is consensus? Isn’t that a bit late, and that lateness one of the central lessons of the ensuing war? How do her internationalist politics reconcile pride in her grandfather’s service under the flag of a dyed-in-the-wool empire? As a contemporary, would she have called that “unjust”? Would this have equated to non-participation in the war effort? How is that respectful of “the abilities and sacrifice of these folks”?
On that note, what kind of word for Warrior and Veteran human beings is “utilize”? For what shall they be “utilized” instead? Are there to be fewer overall? Please explain your alternatives in terms of geopolitics or defense budgeting. What is the Armed Forces’ mission, anyway? Shouldn’t that be what people understand that warfighters are first and foremost “tasked” to do? Can you say no enemies of the United States have been destroyed in twelve years, or that no innocents have been protected and liberated? Can you say no deterrence of other enemies has resulted? What was the true motive of this “unjust” war, then? I’ll wait. And supposing we did honor Veterans by making more of them through the aggressive downsizing of the military. What will they do next? As Household 6 (my better half) puts it, “That’s not supporting Veterans. If she wants to support them, she should give them a job!” (She doesn’t mean just me, of course.)
The message as written is a call to nothing. An aggressive nothing, of the type that functions as something of a decision, a decision for neglect. Veteran status has been postmodernly adjusted downward in the ars civicus because it is obviously the examined, evolved thing to do; we must distance ourselves from the idea of war at all costs, lest we get into another. (That’s how it works, right?)
We’ve been left with the neutered simulacrum of appreciating Veterans, with paying lip service to gratitude for a class of people which one imagines as bereft of the human attributes and virtues commonly awarded to oneself and other abstracts. Domestic society and geopolitical civics alike have suffered for our spiritual abandonments. It is shameful that this has been taught as acceptable. Posting a message like this on Facebook and elsewhere, or speaking it out loud, is not useful to anyone save the poster and their immediate echo chamber, all of whom misunderstand the provenance of their present freedom as well as its continued upkeep.
So how might we clean the pipelines from volunteer to service member to Veteran, so that our heroes may emerge unsullied before the discriminating (pun very intentional) eye of society at large? It takes more than money and slogans, more than free meals at chain restaurants, even more than fast-track job training and scholarships can provide by themselves. It takes true appreciation, in the form of real, personal compassion for another human being whose story exists to be heard by their fellow men and women in as much vivid, individual detail as we would afford that of anyone else. People tell you what they need when you listen authentically. They will tell you how they want to be appreciated. They will help you help themselves to be raised up to the joy of their next chapter. All of us will be the better for it.
These are just words, but they are my contribution this year. I hope their reach eventually helps give rest to at least one of my current or former colleagues. There is no shortage of resources by which to find a place to contribute your time and resources to Veterans. And the key is to recognize these services as giving. Military paperwork speaks of “benefits” and “entitlements”, but those words are insufficient in the face of service. The service member gives; the Department of Defense and the VA merely hold in escrow to give back, with the prayer that it is enough. No matter the official language, Veterans don’t care for “entitlements”—they have earned what they receive.
Meanwhile, the rest of us have accidentally raised our children into an entitlement society that views privation as a sign of disenfranchisement from the body politic and, more importantly, from its orthodoxy. Worse, we allow the idea that disenfranchisement is to be remedied by infantilizing, indoctrinating furtherance of entitlements. And so, without personal or governmental understanding to be had, Veterans Day becomes little more than Black Friday lite; an extra weekend day during which one hopes not to encounter any disagreeable or disheveled individuals—they might be Veterans with PTSD or something.
Colorado and America can do better, and plainly must.
(Originally published at ADM’s blog, Let Us Stand Together.)