Thanking Our Troops for their Service

Author's photo, July 2014, of the American Flag at Dusk
Author’s photo, July 2014, of the American Flag at Dusk

W.J. Astore

I served for twenty years in the Air Force.  Service in the military involves sacrifice even when combat isn’t involved, but it also conveys privileges and provides opportunity, or at least it did so for me.  I can’t recall people thanking me for my service when I wore a uniform, nor did I expect them to.  I just saw myself as doing my duty to the best of my ability, and therefore deserving of no special thanks or commendation.

At TomDispatch.com, former Army Ranger Rory Fanning talks about his discomfort with the thank you parade directed at “our” troops.  His honest words are a reminder that a thank you repeated again and again loses its meaning, especially when it’s appropriated by megastars and sponsored by corporations.  Think, for example, of that Budweiser ad during last year’s Super Bowl that featured a returning LT.  We see him greeting his pretty wife at the airport, then we cut to a surprise parade in his honor down Main Street USA complete with the Budweiser Clydesdales and teary-eyed veterans.  The sentiment, however honest to many of the celebrants, is cheapened as heart strings are tugged to sell beer.  Or consider those Bank of America ads for wounded warriors airing during this year’s World Series.  Images of wounded troops continuing to triumph in spite of war injuries are appropriated to associate a huge bank with the sacrifices endured by ordinary GIs.  Again, however well-intentioned such ads may be, heart strings are being tugged by a bank with a dubious record of sympathy for the little guy and gal.

As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich has noted, elaborate thank you ceremonies can be a form of cheap grace in which Americans clap themselves on the back in spasms of feel-good celebratory pageantry.  Some of these celebrations are so over the top in their flag-waving thanks that you just can’t help having darker thoughts.  Is this a recruitment video?  Are we even meant to think at all or just gush with pride?  Are we simply meant to bask in the reflected glow of the medals on the chests of our young men and women in uniform?

We thank our troops for complicated reasons as well as simple ones.  The simple are easy to write about: genuine thanks, from one person to another, no megastars, no corporations.  Just a handshake and a nod or a few kind words.  I’ve had people thank me in that way since I retired from service, and I appreciate it and respond graciously.

But the complicated reasons  – well, these reasons are not as easy to write about.  The guilt of those who avoid service.  Pro forma thanks.  The thanks that comes from people who believe their involvement with the military both starts and ends there.  The related idea that if one thanks the troops, one has done one’s bit for the war (whichever war our president says we’re fighting today).

More disturbingly is the thanks that allows us all to deny the reality of America’s wars (the reality of all wars): the sordidness of wartime bungling and mismanagement and violence and murder.  Often the latter is drowned out by the bugle calls of thanks! thanks! thanks! coming from the cheering multitudes.

My father taught me “an empty barrel makes the most noise.”  I think that’s true even when the noise is presented as thanks to our troops.