Thank You For Your Service

W.J. Astore

This Veterans Day, instead of thanking vets, ask instead how they’re doing

I served in the U.S. military for twenty years. It was the prime of my life, and I got a great education courtesy of you the American taxpayer. In the Air Force, I was a developmental engineer when I wasn’t teaching history (long story), and I never had to endure bullets and bombs and IEDs in a combat zone, for which I’m grateful. I really consider it an honor to have served, a privilege, because we in the military take an oath to the U.S. Constitution and to the high ideals that document represents.

So I’m always a bit surprised when someone thanks me for my service. I feel like saying, please don’t thank me, but thank you for putting your trust in me, for allowing me to serve and to uphold our nation’s highest ideals. The nation placed its special faith and trust in me, so thanks for doing that.

Of course, I say nothing like that in reply. What I typically say is “You’re welcome,” and then I move on. I don’t tell people: Please, don’t thank me, because that would be rude. My experience is that people want to thank me for sincere if sometimes vague reasons, and that’s OK with me. It’s not the time to launch into a diatribe about the military-industrial-Congressional complex or war crimes or imperialism. I have my blog for that. (Smile.)

Sometimes, though, I think thought (and responsibility) begins and ends with “thank you for your service.” For some people, it means something like this:

Thank you for your service — so I don’t have to think about your service and America’s many wars — and so I don’t have to think about my loved ones having to serve and kill and die in them.

Veterans Day started as Armistice Day, a solemn occasion to mark the end of massive bloodletting in World War I and a return to normalcy, i.e. peace. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars; the armistice on 11 November 1918 was idealistically thought to be the beginning of eternal peace. Today, “peace” is a word you almost never hear in American political discourse. Our new normal is war, which is just about the most horrible thought I could write about U.S. society and culture today.

Why? Partly because veterans often pay “an intolerable price” for their awful experiences in war, notes Kelly Denton-Borhaug at TomDispatch. That’s why most combat veterans don’t want to talk about their experiences, especially with civilians. They’d rather forget, yet it’s so hard to forget or even to forgive yourself when your mind has been scorched by the fires of war.

And it’s not just veterans who pay the price of endless war. Young people turning 21 today have never known a time when America hasn’t been at war with somebody somewhere. They’ve never known a time when massive military budgets were considered abnormal. They’ve never known, in a word, peace.

So, instead of thanking veterans for their service today, perhaps you should simply ask them how they’re doing. Be ready to lend a sympathetic ear, or a helping hand, if they admit to feeling “not so well.”

Thank you for doing this. Thank you for your service.

7 thoughts on “Thank You For Your Service

  1. At which point along the continuum does a person become responsible for their actions in facilitating war crimes and crimes against humanity in wars based on lies? Following orders does not take away the blame, It was thus for me in 71′ and it remains so today. Seeing how the US is the most violent and terrorist nation in the world, my time in the military was the most shameful and dishonorable period of my life to date.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A tough question indeed. And you point to a problem with all these “thank yous”: not every veteran wants to be thanked, and not all are proud of what they did in the military.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. You raise an important point of discussion. Those who pull the trigger must indeed take responsibility. But the word has two dimensions, doesn’t it? One is of the responsibility one must feel/know within themselves, for their actions; one that arises from one’s own consciousness. The other is how it is viewed from the outside; as in the assignment of culpability or blame.

      The latter is especially complicated. It strikes me that at least some of the naive and well-programmed kids, fresh out of high school and a society and system that has consistently told lies about the nobleness of the causes for which they’re being directed to fight, and effectively brainwashed about the monstrous nature of the ‘enemy’, often might not have had much chance to develop the questioning needed before signing up, much less for challenging the orders of those who’ve further conditioned him.

      I’m not saying that those forces fully exonerate the soldier from the harms (s)he might do. Even before my 18th birthday in 1969, I had already made up my mind that I could not go to a foreign land to kill others simply because my government called them enemy. I wish all kids had that same sense of skepticism and questioning, but I know in fact that many good people did and do not.

      So today I hold the architects of wars, of the imperialistic agenda that underlies them, most responsible. And I know that it is my own duty to try to reach as many as possible to end such things.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. From my outsider’s perspective, “thank you for your service” is a phrase handed to people to deflect thought and signal virtue. The public sphere is drowning in such soundbites that, on inspection, mean little or nothing but nonetheless have currency. That’s not true for everyone, of course. Some are absolutely sincere and earnest in offering thanks. Don’t look to the masses for nuanced analysis when prefab replies are easier spit out.

    Liked by 2 people

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