November 11, 2012

Thank You For Your Service

I've been back working retail for a few months now. One of the things we do is to give service members and their dependents a discount. It's good for business, and it's a nice thing to do. Our way of saying "thank you" to the men and women in uniform and the families who support them. It's better than being spit at, which has happened to me, but those were troubled times. Still, it's not something I would ever say to a fellow veteran. I don't know why, but for some reason, it just never felt right.

Turns out, I'm not the only veteran who feels that way. I came across an article on NBCNews that talked about how a lot of servicemen, both former and active, feel uneasy when a total stranger walks up to them and says, "Thank you for your service." After years of thinking I was a horrible human being for feeling uncomfortable during those rare moments when that happened to me, it was something of a relief to know that I wasn't alone in those feelings.

I know what you're thinking. Why is that a problem? Shouldn't I be appreciative of the sentiment behind the words? Yes ... and no. Yes, I am happy that people have finally stopped blaming the warrior for the war, a phenomenon unique, perhaps, to the Vietnam War. But no, if in your mind you are seeing G.I. Joe when you hear that I was in Vietnam. That was someone else, not  me. I was the unfortunate son, a draftee who wasn't exactly rushing to enlist in an excess of patriotic fervor. And, like most veterans, I never saw actual combat. So, if you do, by chance, come across a real hero--who in my opinion is just about anyone who has endured Afghanistan or Iraq or been in actual combat--be sure to thank them for me, too.

Look, I totally get that Vietnam was unique in the American experience. Feelings towards soldiers have evolved, especially after 9/11, and this is as it should be. What the men and women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have endured is unimaginable to someone of my era who was pretty much guaranteed a single one-year rotation, as opposed to the endless re-deployments we see today. The families also deserve our full measure of respect for their sacrifice.

Like I said, Vietnam was unique. No doubt about it, that influences my view of things. A critic of my small Vietnam memoir--yes, there are those who failed to be taken in by the magical spell of my words--noted that I was still angry about the war. Like most critics, he missed the point. (Inside literary joke, there.) True, I remain upset that it took so long for the public to recognize that the Vietnam vet was hurting in ways seen and unseen. That recognition is partly behind the current generosity of spirit towards our men in uniform. We don't want to make the same mistake twice.

But we do continue to make the mistake of thinking that wars are the answer to certain problems. War is never a good answer to any problem. My anger in the book was directed at those who seemed to forget the lessons we should have learned from the Vietnam  War: "... war is never inevitable, rarely necessary, and almost certainly not worth it in terms of outcome versus expectation."

I apply a simple test to any military venture that is urged upon us by the statesmen and politicians. Would I want my grandson or granddaughter to die for whatever cause was used to justify a given war? There are times and places where the answer would be, "Yes." But not nearly as many as the times we have been asked to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way.

So, by all means, let's support our men and women in uniform and their families. We should all be grateful for the choice they made to serve their country. If you want to express your appreciation in words and with a handshake, well, what better day than on Veteran's Day, when we honor the service of all soldiers, past and present.

But if you were to ask me, I would say that the best thing we can do to honor their choice is to make our choices on war and peace in a thoughtful and measured way. There is nothing worse than a war we come to regret or doubt. There have been too many of those, just in my lifetime. An end to all wars is perhaps too much to hope for, but an end to unnecessary wars, to wars of choice ... that should be doable.

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