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.
In my last article, I noted the U.S. military’s pursuit and prosecution of wars based on lies. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq are the most prominent and costly of these wars, though there were and are others. I argued that dishonorable wars were wasting the courage of U.S. troops even as they greatly weakened the U.S. military as an institution. And not just the U.S. military but the Constitution itself, to which all military members swear a sacred oath to support and defend.
I shared my article with a friend who teaches at a senior U.S. military school, and his one comment to me was a question: “How would you fix these problems?”
I’m flattered when my readers think I have the answers to fix major systemic problems that have existed and persisted since the Korean War, if not before. My colleague’s question was sincere, I am sure, and I assume he agreed with much of my analysis since he didn’t question or challenge my fundamental thesis.
Of course, I’m not the only person to have noticed the U.S. military has a serious issue with honor and integrity. Vox Populi posted my last article today with the following photo caption:
Leaders lie “in the routine performance of their duties,” and “ethical and moral transgressions [occur] across all levels” of the organization [Army]. Leaders have also become “ethically numb,” using “justifications and rationalizations” to overcome any ethical doubts, according to a 2015 study by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, who are both professors at the U.S. Army War College.
The title of the Wong/Gerras study is “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” published in 2019. Another powerful book is Tim Bakken’s “The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the U.S. Military,” published in 2020. Bakken teaches at West Point.
So, what is to be done?
I wrote to my colleague that he should put his question to his own students. Since he teaches at a senior military school, his students are mostly Army and Air Force colonels and Navy captains on the fast track to flag rank and stars. Many of them are America’s future generals and admirals. Surely they are the ones who have to come up with solutions, not me. I retired from the military almost two decades ago. I’m no longer part of the clan. Today’s officers are the ones who must challenge the lies, who must seek honor instead of dishonor, who must have the moral courage as public servants to speak up, to change things, and especially to tell the truth to the American people.
Are we as a nation challenging our public servants, including senior military officers, to be men and women of integrity? Are we insisting that they tell the truth when they testify to Congress? When they talk about wars, are they being frank and honest? Or are they evasive and dishonest? If the latter, are they being held accountable for their lies, both within the military and without it, by Congress and by people like us?
I didn’t attend a senior service school, but I did attend Squadron Officer School (for company-grade officers, which I did in-residence) and Air Command and Staff College (for field-grade officers, which I did by correspondence). From what I recall, there was some emphasis on history, on strategy and tactics, and on leadership but not much emphasis, if any, on moral courage, honesty, truth-telling, and integrity.
Fundamental to any military member is the need to honor one’s oath to the U.S. Constitution. We as a nation need to demand that military leaders serve with honor and integrity; this is far more important to the future of our military and our country than gargantuan military budgets and loads of exotic and expensive weaponry.
I remember exactly one discussion at the Air Force Academy when a roomful of officers started debating about which value was most important, the honor code or loyalty (with loyalty here construed in personal terms as support for one’s superiors, equals, and subordinates). The discussion grew heated in a matter of minutes before it was shut down by the senior officer in the room.
That’s exactly one time in six years that I recall a serious, if abbreviated, discussion of honor and truth-telling versus loyalty and the officer’s duty to both, and the challenge one faces when honor conflicts (or seems to conflict) with loyalty.
The failure to address such tensions is not confined to the military. Think of other hierarchical organizations such as the Catholic Church. As a priest, do you honor God’s commandments and the moral teachings of Christ or should you be loyal to your local bishop and the church? When your conscience tells you one thing and the church tells you something else, which one takes priority?
Readers here know I was raised Catholic. I am no longer a practicing Catholic due to the church’s betrayal of children at the hands of predatory priests and the coverups that followed, done in the name of protecting the church and its reputation. In protecting itself, the church betrayed the people. The church lied. The church lacked moral courage and brought dishonor upon itself. Worst of all, it allowed innocent children to suffer.
Whether we’re talking about military officers or ministers and priests, we must demand integrity and honesty, we must seek to inculcate virtue, and we must not tolerate lying, cheating, stealing, and similar crimes and sins.
It’s a very high standard indeed, and perhaps few will live up to it, but I’m not demanding perfection. Just honesty and accountability. A willingness to do the right thing and the courage to admit when the wrong thing is being done and to act to put a stop to it.
So, that’s my “fix” for the U.S. military: a commitment to righteous service where integrity and truth-telling is the priority, even when it hurts one’s career. Because you didn’t take an oath to your career or to your service or to your commanding officer: you took it to the U.S. Constitution, and your officer’s commission is granted by Congress in the name of the people. Serve the people, serve the truth, and remember that moral courage is rarer even than physical courage.
Update (10/3): Clearly, one way to incentivize truth-telling is to reward those who come forward with promotions. The military, however, tends to do the opposite, punishing those who tell “embarrassing” truths to the American people. Two cases in the U.S. Army are LTC Daniel Davis and LTC Paul Yingling. Davis wrote powerfully and honestly about the folly of the Afghan War, based upon his extensive in-country experiences there. Yingling wrote “A Failure in Generalship,” where he noted a private who loses a rifle suffers more repercussions than generals who lose wars. For their courage and honesty, both were ostracized and not promoted.
All service branches usually promote “the true believers,” those who conform, those who who bleed Army green, or Air Force blue, and so on. One gets promoted for doing a good job within the system, and especially for making one’s superiors look good. Davis and Yingling questioned the Army’s performance in the Iraq and Afghan Wars, based on their direct experience with those wars, and for that they were punished.
Twenty years ago, I left the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for my next assignment. I haven’t been back since, but today I travel there (if only in my imagination) to give my graduation address to the class of 2022. So, won’t you take a few minutes and join me, as well as the corps of cadets, in Falcon Stadium?
Congratulations to all you newly minted second lieutenants! As a former military professor who, for six years, taught cadets very much like you at the Academy, I salute you and your accomplishments. You’ve weathered a demanding curriculum, far too many room and uniform inspections, parades, restrictions, and everything else associated with a military that thrives on busywork and enforced conformity. You’ve emerged from all of that today as America’s newest officers, part of what recent commanders-in-chief like to call “the finest fighting force” in human history. Merely for the act of donning a uniform and taking the oath of office, many of your fellow Americans already think of you as heroes deserving of a hearty “thank you for your service” and unqualified expressions of “support.”
And I must say you do exude health, youth, and enthusiasm, as well as a feeling that you’re about to graduate to better things, like pilot training or intelligence school, among so many other Air Force specialties. Some of you will even join America’s newest service, the Space Force, which resonates with me, as my first assignment in 1985 was to Air Force Space Command.
In my initial three years in the service, I tested the computer software the Air Force used back then to keep track of all objects in earth orbit, an inglorious but necessary task. I also worked on war games in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s ultimate command center for its nuclear defense. You could say I was paid to think about the unthinkable, the end of civilization as we know it due to nuclear Armageddon. That was near the tail end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. So much has changed since I wore gold bars like you and yet, somehow, we find ourselves once again in another “cold war” with Russia, this time centered on an all-too-hot war in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, instead of, as in 1962, a country in our immediate neighborhood, Cuba. Still, that distant conflict is only raising fresh fears of a nuclear nightmare that could well destroy us all.
What does this old light colonel, who’s been retired for almost as long as he wore the uniform, have to teach you cadets so many years later? What can I tell you that you haven’t heard before in all the classes you’ve attended and all the lectures you’ve endured?
How about this: You’ve been lied to big time while you’ve been here at the Academy.
Ah, I see I have your attention now. More than a few of you are smiling. I used to joke with cadets about how four years at a military school were designed to smother idealism and encourage cynicism, or so it sometimes seemed. Yes, our lead core value may still be “integrity first,” but the brass, the senior leadership, often convinces itself that what really comes first is the Air Force itself, an ideal of “service” that, I think you’ll agree, is far from selfless.
What do I mean when I say you’ve been lied to while being taught the glorious history of the U.S. Air Force? Since World War II began, the air forces of the United States have killed millions of people around the world. And yet here’s the strange thing: we can’t even say that we’ve clearly won a war since the “Greatest Generation” earned its wings in the 1930s and 1940s. In short, boasts to the contrary, airpower has proven to be neither cheap, surgical, nor decisive. You see what I mean about lies now, I hope.
I know, I know. You’re not supposed to think this way. You eat in Mitchell Hall, named after General Billy Mitchell, that airpower martyr who fought so hard after World War I for an independent air service. (His and our collective dream, long delayed, finally came to fruition in 1947.) You celebrate the Doolittle Raiders, those intrepid aviators who flew off an aircraft carrier in 1942, launching a daring and dangerous surprise attack on Tokyo, a raid that helped restore America’s sagging morale after Pearl Harbor. You mark the courage of the Tuskegee Airmen, those African American pilots who broke racial barriers, while proving their mettle in the skies over Nazi Germany. They are indeed worthy heroes to celebrate.
And yet shouldn’t we airmen also reflect on the bombing of Germany during World War II that killed roughly 600,000 civilians but didn’t prove crucial to the defeat of Adolf Hitler? (In fact, Soviet troops deserve the lion’s share of the credit there.) We should reflect on the firebombing of Tokyo that killed more than 100,000 people, among 60 other sites firebombed, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that, both instantly and over time, killed an estimated 220,000 Japanese. During the Korean War, our air forces leveled North Korea and yet that war ended in a stalemate that persists to this day. During Vietnam, our air power pummeled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, unleashing high explosives, napalm, and poisons like Agent Orange against so many innocent people caught up in American rhetoric that the only good Communist was a dead one. Yet the Vietnamese version of Communism prevailed, even as the peoples of Southeast Asia still suffer and die from the torrent of destruction we rained down on them half a century ago.
Turning to more recent events, the U.S. military enjoyed total air supremacy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other battlefields of the war on terror, yet that supremacy led to little but munitions expended, civilians killed, and wars lost. It led to tens of thousands of deaths by airpower, because, sadly, there are no such things as freedom bombs or liberty missiles.
If you haven’t thought about such matters already (though I’ll bet you have, at least a little), consider this: You are potentially a death-dealer. Indeed, if you become a nuclear launch officer in a silo in Wyoming or North Dakota, you may yet become a death-dealer of an almost unimaginable sort. Even if you “fly” a drone while sitting in a trailer thousands of miles from your target, you remain a death-dealer. Recall that the very last drone attack the U.S. launched in Afghanistan in 2021 killed 10 civilians, including seven children, and that no one in the chain of command was held accountable. There’s a very good reason, after all, why those drones, or, as we prefer to call them, remotely piloted aircraft, have over the years been given names like Predator and Reaper. Consider that a rare but refreshing burst of honesty.
I remember how “doolies,” or new cadets, had to memorize “knowledge” and recite it on command to upper-class cadets. Assuming that’s still a thing, here’s a phrase I’d like you to memorize and recite: Destroying the town is not saving it. The opposite sentiment emerged as an iconic and ironic catchphrase of the Vietnam War, after journalist Peter Arnett reported a U.S. major saying of devastated Ben Tre, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Incredibly, the U.S. military came to believe, or at least to assert, that destroying such a town was a form of salvation from the alleged ideological evil of communism. But whether by bombs or bullets or fire, destruction is destruction. It should never be confused with salvation.
Will you have the moral courage, when it’s not strictly in defense of the U.S. Constitution to which you, once again, swore an oath today, to refuse to become a destroyer?
Two Unsung Heroes of the U.S. Air Force
In your four years here, you’ve learned a lot about heroes like Billy Mitchell and Lance Sijan, an Academy grad and Medal of Honor recipient who demonstrated enormous toughness and resilience after being shot down and captured in Vietnam. We like to showcase airmen like these, the true believers, the ones prepared to sacrifice everything, even their own lives, to advance what we hold dear. And they are indeed easy to respect.
I have two more courageous and sacrificial role models to introduce to you today. One you may have heard of; one you almost certainly haven’t. Let’s start with the latter. His name was James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth and he rose to the rank of major general in our service. As a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, were given an order to drop napalm on a village that allegedly harbored enemy Viet Cong soldiers. Hildreth disobeyed that order, dropping his napalm outside the target area and saving (alas, only temporarily) the lives of 1,200 innocent villagers.
How could Hildreth have possibly disobeyed his “destroy the town” order? The answer: because he and his wingman took the time to look at the villagers they were assigned to kill. In their Skyraiders, they flew low and slow. Seeing nothing but apparently friendly people waving up at them, including children, they sensed that something was amiss. It turns out that they were oh-so-right. The man who wanted the village destroyed was ostensibly an American ally, a high-ranking South Vietnamese official. The village hadn’t paid its taxes to him, so he was using American airpower to exact his revenge and set an example for other villages that dared to deny his demands. By refusing to bomb and kill innocents, Hildreth passed his “gut check,” if you will, and his career doesn’t appear to have suffered for it.
But he himself did suffer. He spoke about his Vietnam experiences in an oral interview after he’d retired, saying they’d left him “really sick” and “very bitter.” In a melancholy, almost haunted, tone, he added, “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much,” and one can understand why.
So, what happened to the village that Hildreth and his wingman had spared from execution by napalm? Several days later, it was obliterated by U.S. pilots flying high and fast in F-105s, rather than low and slow as Hildreth had flown in his A-1. The South Vietnamese provincial official had gotten his way and Hildreth’s chain of command was complicit in the destruction of 1,200 people whose only crime was fighting a tax levy.
My second hero is not a general, not even an officer. He’s a former airman who’s currently behind bars, serving a 45-month sentence because he leaked the so-called drone papers, which revealed that our military’s drone strikes killed far more innocent civilians than enemy combatants in the war on terror. His name is Daniel Hale, and you should all know about him and reflect on his integrity and honorable service to our country.
What was his “crime”? He wanted the American people to know about their military and the innocent people being killed in our name. He felt the burden of the lies he was forced to shoulder, the civilians he watched dying on video monitors due to drone strikes. He wanted us to know, too, because he thought that if enough Americans knew, truly knew, we’d come together and put a stop to such atrocities. That was his crime.
Daniel Hale was an airman of tremendous moral courage. Before he was sentenced to prison, he wrote an eloquent and searing letter about what had moved him to share information that, in my view, was classified mainly to cover up murderous levels of incompetence. I urge you to read Hale’s letter in which he graphically describes the deaths of children and the trauma he experienced in coming to grips with what he termed “the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated” while serving as an Air Force intelligence analyst.
It’s sobering stuff, but we airmen, you graduates in particular, deserve just such sobering information, because you’re going to be potential death-dealers. Yet it’s important that you not become indiscriminate murderers, even if you never see the people being vaporized by the bombs you drop and missiles you’ll launch with such profligacy.
In closing, do me one small favor before you throw your caps in the air, before the Thunderbirds roar overhead, before you clap yourselves on the back, before you head off to graduation parties and the congratulations of your friends and family. Think about a saying I learned from Spider-Man. Yes, I really do mean the comic-book hero. “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Like so many airmen before you, you may soon find yourself in possession of great power over life and death in wars and other conflicts that, at least so far in this century, have been all too grim. Are you really prepared for such a burden? Because power and authority, unchecked by morality and integrity, will lead you and our country down a very dark path indeed.
Always remember your oath, always aim high, the high of Hildreth and Hale, the high of those who remember that they are citizen-airmen in service to a nation founded on lofty ideals. Listen to your conscience, do the right thing, and you may yet earn the right to the thanks that so many Americans will so readily grant you just by virtue of wearing the uniform.
And if you’ll allow this aging airman one final wish: I wish you a world where the bombs stay in their aircraft, the missiles in their silos, the bullets in their guns, a world, dare I say it, where America is finally at peace.
Copyright 2022 William J. Astore. Originally at TomDispatch.com. Please read TomDispatch.com, a regular antidote to the mainstream media. Thank you!
Three retired Army generals recently wrote an op-ed at The Washington Post on their fears of a coup in the aftermath of the next presidential election in 2024. Their scenario: Biden gets reelected, but Trump or a Trump-like candidate refuses to concede. A hyper-partisan military splits, with some units throwing their support to the loser, leading to a coup attempt. The three generals further suggest that the military must act now to prepare for, and thus to prevent, such a coup.
I have several thoughts on this. First, and most obvious, is the military’s oath of office, which is to the U.S. Constitution. If the U.S. military, with all its authority in our society, and all the colossal sums of money we give it, can’t be trusted to honor its oath, then there is truly something fundamentally wrong with its leadership and its ethos. I would suggest immediate public firings and prosecution of any leaders who put political partisanship before the U.S. Constitution and the oath of office.
Second, what’s most striking to me is what these generals don’t say. They talk about partisanship and seem to assume the enemy is solely from the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party. If Trump would just disappear, along with his movement, America would be just fine. Really?
Here’s my take: Partisanship surely does exist, but it needs to be understood. It needs to be connected to America’s disastrous and dishonest wars and also to the greedy and dishonest behavior of the generals. If military veterans are dangerous, it’s because they feel betrayed. They believe their situation is hopeless — and thus many are alienated and angry. A Trump-like figure can exploit this alienation and anger precisely because the Democratic Party is doing so little to help the working classes, including military veterans. (Of course, Republicans are arguably doing even less.)
If you want fewer hyper-partisan veterans, give them something tangible, like higher wages, affordable health care, better job opportunities — some recognition that their sacrifices were not in vain. Show them you’re working to enrich all citizens, not just those who are already in the top 10%, or the top 1% for that matter.
That said, I want to stress the culpability of the U.S. military in creating the potential conditions for a coup. The warrior ethos of today’s all-volunteer military is corrosive to democratic society. It’s the generals who advanced this warrior ethos, and it’s the generals who accepted, even applauded, the elimination of the draft. They didn’t want a citizen-military that would question the constitutionality of aggressive wars overseas. Now, a few of them admit to worrying about those demobbed “warriors” who’ve learned to believe less in the Constitution and more in the shock and awe of decapitating strikes.
These generals further fail to note the total lack of accountability within the senior leadership of the U.S. military for Iraq and Afghanistan, among other disasters. Indeed, the generals have, almost to a man, cashed in, none more so than General Stanley McChrystal, who actually was fired for cause. The vast majority of today’s generals retire with six-figure pensions and go immediately to work for the military-industrial complex. In place of Cincinnatus or George Washington, their role model is Gordon Gekko.
Want to stop future coup attempts? Admit to veterans that the wars they fought were based on, driven by, and perpetuated with lies. Unite to advance true democratic reforms. Act to ensure all future wars are defensive and authorized only by congressional declaration. And return to the citizen-soldier traditions of Cincinnatus and George Washington. Most of all, seek peace, among ourselves and with all nations.