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August 02, 2011 7:00 AM War, Guilt and ‘Thank You for Your Service’

By Guest Author

By Elizabeth Samet

Watch a 1940s or 1950s movie set in New York City — noir, comedy or melodrama — and you are sure to spot him: straphanging on a crowded subway car, buying a newspaper at a kiosk or sitting in a coffee shop. The anonymous man in uniform is a stock extra in these films, as elemental to the urban landscape as the beat cop, the woman with the baby carriage or the couple in love.

But today, a woman or man in military uniform dining in a restaurant, sitting on a bench in Central Park or walking up Broadway constitutes a spectacle. I have witnessed this firsthand whenever one of my military colleagues and I have taken West Point cadets to the city to attend a performance or to visit a library or museum. My civilian clothes provide camouflage as I watch my uniformed friends bombarded by gratitude.

These meetings between soldier and civilian turn quickly into street theater. The soldier is recognized with a handshake. There’s often a request for a photograph or the tracing of a six-degrees-of-separation genealogy: “My wife’s second cousin is married to a guy in the 82nd Airborne.” Each encounter concludes with a ritual utterance: “Thank you for your service.”

Obligatory Thanks

One former captain I know proposed that “thank you for your service” has become “an obligatory salutation.” Dutifully offered by strangers, “somewhere between an afterthought and heartfelt appreciation,” it is gratifying but also embarrassing to a soldier with a strong sense of modesty and professionalism. “People thank me for my service,” another officer noted, “but they don’t really know what I’ve done.”

Sometimes, the drama between soldier and civilian turns plain weird. One officer reported that while shopping in uniform at the grocery store one evening, she was startled by a man across the aisle who gave her an earnest, Hollywood-style, chest-thumping Roman salute. My friend is unfailingly gracious, but she was entirely at a loss for a proper response.

These transactions resemble celebrity sightings — with the same awkwardness, enthusiasm and suspension of normal expectations about privacy and personal space. Yet while the celebrity is an individual recognized for a unique, highly publicized performance, the soldier is anonymous, a symbol of an aggregate. His or her performance is unseen.

Spitting on Soldiers

The successful reincorporation of veterans into civil society entails a complex, evolving process. Today, the soldier’s homecoming has been further complicated by the absence of a draft, which removes soldiers from the cultural mainstream, and by the fact that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have little perceptible impact on the rhythms of daily life at home.

Whether anyone ever spat on an American soldier returning from Vietnam is a matter of debate. The sociologist and veteran Jerry Lembcke disputed such tales in “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.” Apocryphal or not, this image has become emblematic of an era’s shame, and of the failure of civilians to respond appropriately to the people they had sent to fight a bankrupt war.

The specter of this guilt — this perdurable archetype of the hostile homecoming — animates today’s encounters, which seem to have swung to the other unthinking extreme. “Thank you for your service” has become a mantra of atonement. But, as is all too often the case with gestures of atonement, substance has been eclipsed by mechanical ritual. After the engagement, both parties retreat to separate camps, without a significant exchange of ideas or perspectives having passed between them.

Collective Responsibility

When I broached the subject with a major with whom I had experienced the phenomenon, he wrote a nuanced response. Although he’s convinced that “the sentiments most people express appear to be genuinely FELT,” he nonetheless distrusts such spectacles. “Does the act of thanking a soldier unconsciously hold some degree of absolution from the collective responsibility?” he asked.

No reasonable person would argue that thanking soldiers for their service isn’t preferable to spitting on them. Yet at least in the perfunctory, formulaic way many such meetings take place, it is an equally unnatural exchange. The ease with which “thank you for your service” has circumvented a more enduring human connection doesn’t bode well for mutual understanding between soldiers and civilians. The inner lives of soldiers remain opaque to most of us.

A Seductive Transaction

“Deep down,” the major, who served in Iraq, acknowledged, “my ego wants to embrace the ritualized adoration, the sense of purpose, and the attendant mythology.” The giving and receiving of thanks is a seductive transaction, and no one knows that better than this officer: “I eagerly shake hands, engage in small talk, and pose for pictures with total strangers.” Juxtaposed in his mind with scenes from Fallujah or Arlington National Cemetery, however, his sanitized encounters with civilians make him feel like Mickey Mouse, he confessed. “Welcome to Disneyland.”

Thanking soldiers on their way to or from a war isn’t the same as imaginatively following them there. Conscience-easing expressions of gratitude by politicians and citizens cloak with courtesy the often bloody, wounding nature of a soldier’s service. Today’s dominant narrative, one that favors sentimentality over scrutiny, embodies a fantasy that everything will be okay if only we display enough flag-waving enthusiasm. More than 100,000 homeless veterans, and more than 40,000 troops wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, may have a different view.

Lincoln’s Consolation

If our theater of gratitude provoked introspection or led to a substantive dialogue between giver and recipient, I would celebrate it. But having witnessed these bizarre, fleeting scenes, I have come to believe that they are a poor substitute for something more difficult and painful — a conversation about what war does to the people who serve and to the people who don’t. There are contradictions inherent in being, as many Americans claim to be, for the troops but against the war. Most fail to consider the social responsibilities such a stance commits them to fulfilling in the coming decades.

Few Americans have understood more clearly the seductions and inadequacies of professing gratitude than Abraham Lincoln. Offering to a mother who had lost two sons in the Civil War “the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic,” Lincoln nevertheless acknowledged “how weak and fruitless must be any words … which should attempt to beguile” her from her grief. Expressions of thanks constitute the beginning, not the end, of obligation.

(Elizabeth Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of “Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

[Source: Bloomberg View]

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  • SadOldVet on August 02, 2011 2:42 PM:

    As a veteran of an earlier misbegotten war, I appreciate this article. As a member of VVAW, I appreciate that the author broaches the subject of the semi-adulation for today's military and that "...have come to believe that they are a poor substitute for something more difficult and painful — a conversation about what war does to the people who serve and to the people who don’t.

    It is difficult for me to have a conversation (that stays polite) with those who have never been a participant in a war yet refuse to acknowledge that there is almost always a psychological (if not physical) price paid by those who do. My personal issues are seldom with those opposed to wars and extensively with those gungho for wars and more wars.

    As a veteran of more than 10 years in an Army uniform, I have very much mixed reactions to the way that current military personnel are treated. I served in Vietnam for 20+ months, 3 years in Germany, and just short of 3 years in El Paso, Texas (which I consider as being almost outside the U.S.). I actually was honorably discharged upon my return from Nam. When I returned from Vietnam, I was not spit upon but I did see and personally experience spite and a widespread level of discrimation against Nam vets. It was a factor in my reentering Army service for another 8 years.

    I know many Iraq/Afganistan vets and I do not begrudge them the welcoming reception that they receive for their service. At the very least, everyone who has honorably served in the military deserves respect for having done so. What totally grates on me is the continuing hero status bestowed by the corporately owned media upon all currently serving in the military. To call an entire class of persons heros is severely disrespectful to those relatively few who have earned the status of hero. It demeans and cheapens what real heroism is. True military heros have mostly performed selfless acts of bravery that go one hell of a long way beyond wearing a uniform. Most have paid dearly for their level of heroism.

  • Crissa on August 02, 2011 4:30 PM:

    My father served in Vietnam... And would never talk about his service there. He died soon after do to misadventure, so he never got to the place where he could talk about it.

    I think the change in attitude was long in coming from WWII to Vietnam - vets were always poorly treated in the US, and WWII was an aberration in how many people were affected directly by having soldiers be relatives. This lead to great things like the GI Bills, but eventually the military again became something only the poor or downtrodden did; and ROTC (college kid soldiers) were a place to escape from actual war.

    In my readings, the only spitting I've ever found were soldiers who took up arguments and then made hay about the reaction they got - and this attitude still pervade the military, to protect their fellow soldiers no matter what misdeeds they'd done. I know that with the guys I've known who've gone through the military, it was an uphill battle to remind them of behavior and attitudes which weren't appropriate. For some soldiers that meant having to watch their language for racist remarks about non-soldiers - for other soldiers it meant being put back into a racist society that didn't care for them before they were soldiers.

    It is the conflation of these things that leads to the negative view of soldiers in general society: Soldiers being mostly from the underclass, a general distain for difficulty, and soldiers having to normalize to civilian life. But in modern times, soldiers are now rare enough and we have a generation brought up with soldiers as being people who were unjustly maligned.

    I think it's a great irony that the party that celebrates soldiers the most, most often votes to cut support to reintegrate them into society.

  • -jp on August 03, 2011 3:58 AM:

    For the past 40 years and more the American military has become nothing so much as an institutionalized form of invloluntary servitude. Brainwashed into a brutalized worldview, recruits are conscripted into blind obedience under the camouflage of the mythology of "honor," with the promise of permanent "glory," bestowed in the tickertape and flower petals of a grateful nation --- although little if anythihg of substance has been designed to erase the indoctrination or to take reponsibility for the after effects of applied insanity, or even to allow an economic reintegration into superficial normalcy.

    It is only the ritualized fiction of heroism that separates the average American soldier from the average American prisoner --- that, and the much cooler uniforms and power toys.

    Both belong to institutions designed to take the able-bodied, mostly young men, off the streets and out of an ever polarised econonmy, and into a closed and tightly controlled reserve, out of the effects and away from former loyalties in the "free" society. Both groups are largely culled from the lower ranks of the socio-economic masses, induced by either explicit or implicit contracts of acclaim or despair. Both receive intesive training largely suitable only in the situations of their capture. The only thing asked of them is to either rise up against an"enemy" or to be one.

    In the case of the military, the citizenry has been thouroughly propagandized and guilt-tripped into the heroic/tragic-warrior theme, which the instition further exploits between battles to sustain its parasitic feeding off every social resource. In the case of the prisoner, the stereotype is of a debased sub-humanity, whose routine torture and bestializtion becomes, through an unremitting campaign of popular image manipulation and general fear mongering, an excuse and a justification for every invasion, occupation, assassination, or slaughter the State calls for. The prisoner has come to precede the soldier in the military culture's devouring agenda, and the same sick, homeless, abandonement awaits many of either camp who might survive their particular wars

    All it takes is the judgemental finger pointing and the claim of "I want You!" or: "evil doer!" --- the requisition/accusation is the verdict and the proof of our patriotism and justice.

    Welcome Home.

  • quiet one on August 06, 2011 7:34 PM:

    I guess my question to the soldiers among us is, how would you like to be treated? My policy is standard politeness, no more, no less than to anyone else I meet without a uniform.

    The current message to civilians through the media and elsewhere is, pretty clearly, that military are just worthier people. Having a child in the military is proof you're a good parent. I saw a CBS news segment on foreclosure assistance and the spot was careful to prominently show that one of the couple's sons was military--so of course they were deserving of help.
    Another segment was on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans having trouble getting jobs--just like the rest of us. It's terrible for them, I won't minimize that, but *it's terrible for us too.* The jobs just aren't there, even for my hard-working civilian husband who has clung to a retail job for *five years* while trying to get something better.

    Last I read in civics class, you are supposed to be citizen-soldiers--with "citizen" coming first. I prefer to treat you that way.

  • cwolf on August 06, 2011 8:05 PM:

    “People thank me for my service,” another officer noted, “but they don’t really know what I’ve done.”

    I know what you've done. http://www.collateralmurder.com/

    Well maybe not you personally, but you're all part of the same shit. Maybe you just interviewed folks at Gitmo or Baghram for the CIA.

    You never participated in any sort of a somewhat justified warring response to a real danger such as a Rampaging Hitler type.

    For over 50 years, all of the US wars have been against little, mostly unarmed countries that we invaded and temporarily occupied until we got the boot or we just got bored & left. They were fought for all the wrong reasons by mostly thrill seeking volunteer soldiers.

    Johnson & Nixon stayed in Vietnam so as not to become the frirst president to "lose" a war. What Bullshit.
    Reagan beat up Grenada to get a few hundred dead Marines in Lebanon off the front pages. Sick fuck.
    Reagan & Bush1 send weapons to Iraq and Iran during
    their murderous was.
    Reagan sends weapons to Osama & the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight off Russian invaders. arghh,,, enemy of my enemy crap.
    I won't even get into Bush2/Obama & their catastrophic wars.

    All the dirty work is done by soldiers. I say Fuck 'em all to hell.

    I don't like soldiers. It stands to reason I don't like veterans either.

  • Califlander on August 06, 2011 10:18 PM:

    @cwolf

    The thing about sovereignty is this: the citizenry that sends its soldiers off to war is every bit as culpable for what happens as the soldiers themselves. Launching a war of aggression is the first war crime, from which all the others flow.

    If you don't like soldiers then it does, as you say, stand to reason that you wouldn't like veterans. By that logic, of course, I hope you're not overly proud of yourself, either.

  • phein39 on August 08, 2011 3:13 PM:

    Following up on cwolf and Califlander:

    I'm a veteran. I was never asked to invade a small helpless country, but I was never asked to protect anyone's freedoms, either. That's not the gig you sign up for, the 'being asked' part. You just go.

    How would I like to be treated? Like a fellow citizen whose life is worth something, something that should be measurable in terms of sovereignty of our free estate, something that shouldn't be frittered away over lies and fear, no matter how loudly they are broadcast.

    I'd like my service to be not appreciated, but taken as a responsibility: I'll put my life on the line, you make sure it's for a good reason.

  • Tom on August 09, 2011 3:47 PM:

    I also am a veteran (Korean War) and spent most of my four years in the Navy doing hazardous duty assignments for what is now less than minimum wage pay. I joined up because, as a member of the lower socio-economic class, I felt that it was my "duty" (just as my grandfather enlisted in the Civil War, my uncle enlisted in the Spanish American War, my father enlisted in WWI, and my older brothers enlisted in WWII.

    I was able to take advantage of the GI Bill and was the first person in my family to attend or graduate from college.

    People who show obvious disrespect for anyone whom they think is socially (or economically) below them (usually happens when I defend collective bargaining, public schools, progressive income taxes, etc.) really anger me. Often they also imply that I must never have served in the military and when I disabuse them of that notion, they invariably always try to thank for my service. I hate it because it is obviously a ruse to disguise their own embarrassment

  • Steve on August 11, 2011 11:10 AM:

    Without warriors we cannot have wars.

  • Califlander on August 15, 2011 1:09 AM:

    @Steve

    It's not real easy having wars without venal, corrupt leaders and and a docile, compliant public, either.

  • Mercedes on August 15, 2011 4:32 PM:

    I have decided that the soldiers and support staff who fight in wars are often far,far more noble that the causes for which they fight.

  • Bgrd on August 16, 2011 9:38 PM:

    @cwolf

    Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan aside, there are a lot of places that cannot be mentioned in open forum that soldiers and sailors are going, and fighting, killing, and dying that are not countries. Piracy is the best example I can give, that is a blatant international crime and sailors are putting their lives in danger fighting those criminals. I've been there.

    What does that have to do with the article? Not much, but you know what greeting I'd love to hear instead of "thanks for the service", is simply "good luck" or "come home safe".

  • Carolyn on August 24, 2011 11:18 PM:

    I speak from a female veteran's point of view. I was a college educated 20 something bored with life & decided to join the army for a change in life. My parents thought I had lost my mind as I was the only girl & my older brothers did not have any military aspirations. My father was a WWII veteran who would have tears in his eyes when he spoke of the horrible things he saw in Germany in the liberation of concentration camps. He had some photographs of the camps that he took that he did not share with me or my brothers until we were well into our teens.

    When I joined the army he was very proud of my service, more proud than I was. I am a Gulf "War" veteran & I felt almost embarrassment upon my return with the parade & festival-like atmosphere when our plane touched down. The governor was even in attendance! Pure, plain guilt on the part of the American people on how they treated Vietnam vets. I wanted to just go home & be with my family, not be fussed over for spending 6 months in Saudia Arabia & calling it a "war". I volunteered for my duty. I knew the hazards when I signed the papers.

    If Americans are sincere about their gratitude towards soldiers, how about ensuring that they receive proper medical care in VA facilities? I wouldn't take my dog to the one near me. Walter Reed Hospital was a true embarrassment in the substandard conditions there. All the hawks want to wage a war (or 3!) but forget about paying for all the thousands & thousands of injured for the rest of their lives. How about helping them find a damn job?

  • Dave Park on October 22, 2011 1:00 PM:

    Whenever I hear this at airports and such, two things immediately pop in my small mind. First is that I am NOT serving, and definitely not serving for you. I am getting paid quite generously to do something I actually enjoy, and it has almost nothing to do with you. In fact, you have no idea what I do, and you don't want to find out. Second, you are probably thanking me, because you know if it wasn't for "stupid" people like me, your own children would be getting drafted to fight all the wars you voted for and continue to vote for. So I see right through you selfish civilian. Just pick up my tab at the restaurant if you really want to thank me "for my service."

  • David on July 27, 2012 11:24 AM:

    I was in the Coast Guard, stationed on a Cutter. One day when people thanked this one member of the crew while he was on duty in the quarterdeck (guard shack) on the pier, I just wanted to scream from the bridge wing "You DO know he's the biggest dirt bag on the ship, right?"