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Sunday, February 22, 2015

New York Times writer posits "Thank you for your service" is offensive to veterans. I disagree.

Byron Wong at bigWOWO asks:
Hey [me],

I just saw this:

I'd be interested in your opinion. Could you blog about it? (I usually don't request this, but I think lots of people might also be interested.) All considered, I think the vets are right about those who don't serve--it's what you're supposedly supposed to say, without any kind of thought.


I was a soldier and, thus, I will always be a veteran. I have advocated for veterans in the civilian-military context. I have been thanked for my military service, so I have some insight on the topic. That being said, I qualify my reactions to Matt Richtel's article with I am not a 9/11-generation war veteran and even if I were, veterans are opinionated individuals with diverse takes on being thanked for their military service.


_Mr. Richtel's article would have been better rounded had he teamed with a thoughtful veteran, preferably a contemporary 9/11-generation war veteran, as a co-author.

Nonetheless, the perfect is the enemy of the good. I encourage people like Mr. Richtel to explore, however imperfectly, veterans issues from the civilian side of the civilian-military divide. His article implies that veterans prefer a social firewall to shut off acknowledgement and conversation from civilians who are not members of the American military fraternity and lack the basic framework to understand it. Perhaps some veterans feel like that. Not all do. I don't believe most veterans feel like that. I take a different tack. In college, creating a vital civilian-military cultural interface was a foundational reason for starting MilVets. Bridging the civilian-military divide has carried forward as a core element of MilVets' mission on campus and, for years, the group has been almost entirely 9/11-generation war veterans.

_The response from Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, highlights a key point that I feel strongly about, too: the politics of war matter to veterans.

We know when we volunteer that selfless service and sacrifice, potentially of our lives, are part of the deal. They're core elements of American military heritage. By oath, we trust up front that our nation's leaders will invest our lives in worthy causes. That doesn't mean, however, soldiers don't care about the politics of war. Of course they care; they live the wars and stake their lives in them. It mattered to me why my fellow American soldiers and I should potentially die defending Koreans from Koreans. The same question has been asked about the wisdom of Americans dying to defend Vietnamese from Vietnamese, Somalis from Somalis, Slavs from Slavs, Iraqis from Iraqis, Afghanis from Afghanis, and possibly someday, (Taiwanese) Chinese from (mainland) Chinese. The question really is one of fundamental premise: should America be a 'leader of the free world' at all that stakes the lives of America's sons and daughters for the sake of other peoples across distant shores.

Other than outliers like Ehren Watada, the politics of war take a backseat for soldiers while they're engrossed with the tasks, conditions, and standards of the mission at hand, and keeping their men, their buddies, and themselves sound. But the why and the outcome of the war matter very much to veterans when they reflect on their experiences, contextualize them in narrative form, and weigh the consequences for their own lives, their families, their comrades, their country, the people over there, and the world.

What categorically separates 'good' wars from 'bad' wars is the prevailing narrative of the why and outcome. While the wars viewed as honorable in the zeitgeist are just as harsh in their ground and personal effects as the wars viewed as dishonorable, the prevailing narrative sets the contextual frame that colors the social value of a veteran's military service. For that reason, it's critical for the sake of Iraq veterans to correct the political distortions of the law and policy, fact basis or justification - the why - of Operation Iraqi Freedom, more so since the long-term outcome of their mission has been thrown off track. Setting the record straight in the zeitgeist is most important for the young children of our KIA in Iraq who will only ever know their father or mother through the prism of the cultural legacy of the Iraq War.

_How have I personally felt when I've been thanked for my military service? A bit awkward.

The conventional responses to "Thank you", such as "No problem" or "You're welcome", don't squarely fit because overseas military service, generally speaking, is a national security action in the global context for the sake of the collective us. National security (i.e., national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests of the United States) is not the same thing as homeland security. Overseas military service is not a direct conveyance from American soldier to American (civilian) citizen, unlike say, a Coast Guard sailor or National Guard soldier who directly engages fellow Americans while serving on a search-and-rescue, peacekeeping, or disaster relief mission in the homeland. The good of my service in a national security mission in Korea to my fellow Americans was collective, indirect, and largely abstract.

As such, I would advise veterans who feel cynical like Hunter Garth to not interpret the statement, "Thank you for your service", from the viewpoint of their personal relationship with the thanker. Instead, they ought to adopt a more social view that a citizen on behalf of the nation is expressing civic appreciation to a soldier or veteran as a representative of the military's greater contribution to the collective us as the American nation.

The same civic concept underlies the "any soldier" letters from American schoolchildren that are distributed randomly to soldiers serving overseas. As a 20-something soldier in Korea, I felt awkward and vaguely objectified receiving a handwritten letter from a 4th grader in Ohio thanking me, too. The letter wasn't to me, though. It was to an American soldier serving over there and I was an American soldier serving over there.

I've summarized the abstract social value of military service and the civic appreciation thereof thus:
It truly is selfless service – a lot of love and pride goes into soldiering. It doesn’t matter why someone joins or where he came from, or how much he enjoys (or suffers) his duties. It doesn’t matter who’s making the tough decisions in the White House. Soldiers are part of a heritage that is older, deeper and more essential than the republic for which they sacrifice. Soldiers are of the people. They are the primal embodiment of the social contract we make with each other to be a civilization.

Now, and in all times, our soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen deserve the American people’s gratitude and understanding.
The summary follows from the way I counseled the new soldiers assigned to my care: You're a professional soldier of the United States Army now. Never forget that on your chest, you are telling the world at all times what you represent - your country, your Army, your family.

In my opinion, when a veteran is being thanked for his service by someone who has not served, likely will never serve, and doesn't know what it's like, the proffer of gratitude is not attuned to the veteran's individual service experience. But the expression is not meaningless. The veteran is being thanked by a fellow countryman less for his own sake than as an affirmation of something essential the veteran is part of that is bigger, deeper, and older than himself, that in fact is deeper and older than the American nation. He should accept it as a civic cultural ritual and not reject it as an unintended affront. The thank-you is not personal. It's for "any soldier" and the veteran represents "any soldier" who has served bearing his country, his Army, his family name over his heart.

Perhaps formulating a ritualistic response for veteran thankees would help alleviate the awkwardness of being thanked for our service. I suggest responding with "It was an honor", which deflects the individual aspect and focuses the exchange, instead, on the timeless collective aspect of military service.


To expand a bit on my post, "Thank you for your service" is viewed properly as a civic cultural ritual rather than a unique transaction between individuals. As with any ritual, though, "Thank you for your service" functions only when the meaning and context of the ritual are mutually understood and the underlying ethic is shared by its participants. As ritual, the key pieces currently missing are, one, a common cultural understanding of "Thank you for your service" as an affirmation of a fundamental social value rather than a comment on an individual experience and, two, a formulaic ritual response by the veteran thankee. I suggest the response, "It was an honor", to focus on the timeless collective aspect instead of the particular individual aspect of the veteran's military service.

As analogy, the ritual of the Eucharist is not a quick, thoughtless, throwaway substitute for the spectrum of Catholicism. Rather, the brief ritual is an entry point for the larger clockwork of believing and practicing the faith. "Thank you for your service", properly understood and practiced, should function similarly within a larger clockwork of (secular) civilian-military relations. When the context of the ritual of the Eucharist is subtracted, then the Communion bread becomes just a piece of wheat bread. Ritual context should be added to "Thank you for your service".

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