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.
When I was eighteen, the U.S. Army promised I could “be all that you can be.” The Navy said “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” The Marines were all about “The few — the proud — the Marines.” And the Air Force promised “a great way of life.” I guess I wanted a great way of life, so I joined the Air Force.
Seriously, I never thought I’d serve for twenty years in uniform. My career was relatively easy in the sense that no one ever shot at me, nor did I ever have to take a life. I got an excellent education, met good people, went to interesting places, and got to teach a subject I loved for six years.
Recently, I learned that a member of my family is thinking of joining the military after high school. He hasn’t asked for my advice, but his interest in wearing the uniform made me think about the advice I’d give him if he did ask. What can you say to young men and women that can help them to make an informed decision — the best possible one for them?
It’s easy to be gung-ho about the military. It’s also easy, I think, to dismiss military service with extreme prejudice. The best advice is honest, balanced, and attuned to the person seeking it. In this spirit, what would I say to a young person contemplating enlisting in the military?
Let’s tackle the disadvantages first, the downside and drawbacks to military service, the aspects of military life that potential recruits rarely think about. Here are a few of them:
You could die or be seriously wounded in the military. Think of PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury), and similar “hidden” wounds of war. America is incessantly at war, somewhere, and there’s always a chance you could die. But of course young people think they’re immortal and may even crave danger, so this reality rarely deters them.
You may have to kill other people. Perhaps even innocent people, because war is extremely messy and chaotic. Such acts of violence against humanity may lead to moral injury that will haunt your conscience. Are you prepared to kill? Truly?
You sacrifice personal autonomy and some of your rights when you join the military. You have to be willing to follow orders. You can’t just quit and walk away. The military insists on obedience and discipline. Are you prepared to do as you’re told?
If you think you’re important, you’re not: and the military will remind you of this. You’re a pawn in a vast bureaucracy; you’re at the mercy of a system that is often capricious and treats you as a number. You’ll quickly learn the wisdom of acronyms like SNAFU (situation normal, all fucked up) and FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition). They may sound funny, until they come to describe your life and career in the military.
You may wish to ask yourself when was the last “good” or necessary war that America has fought for the purpose of true national defense. You may discover that recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere were not “good” wars in service of your Oath of Office to the U.S. Constitution. If this gives you pause, if this troubles you, I suggest you don’t enlist.
Take the time to read about veterans who are against war. Consider this letter written by Daniel Hale, who is currently serving prison time for his courageous stance against the murderously imprecise nature of drone warfare. Read about Pat Tillman, the NFL player who enlisted in the Army and who was killed by friendly fire, then used as a propaganda prop by the U.S. military. Don’t think something similar can’t happen to you.
I could mention other disadvantages, such as frequent moves, nonsensical jobs, bad bosses, etc., but many civilian jobs share these. Work isn’t easy; it’s why it’s called “work.”
Now, how about the advantages to military service. I know that some of my readers will challenge these, and rightly so, but here are a few “positive waves” about enlisting and taking the oath:
Tradition. For some enlistees, it’s about family tradition. I wasn’t from a strong military family, but my father and his two brothers served in World War II; so did my mother’s brother; and, more recently, my older brother enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War and three brothers-in-law also served, one in Vietnam during that horrendous war.
Opportunity. The military today is respected within our society, even venerated. Serving in the military may provide you with unique opportunities both during and after your service.
Teamwork. In a selfish “you can have it all” society, the military reminds us of the importance of teamwork.
Idealism. Taking the Oath of Office should mean something to you. If it doesn’t, don’t enlist.
Purpose, discipline, responsibility, maturity. The military isn’t the only way to live a life of purpose, a disciplined life, a life of responsibility, a life centered on growth and maturation. But, for more than a few people, the military has provided a path forward, a sense of pride and clarity, though that can come at tremendous cost, as explained above.
And, of course, the normal reasons people join: pay, benefits, an opportunity to travel, to start life over, perhaps to escape a bad situation, and so on.
Enlistment, in sum, is a personal decision that must be weighed carefully. What I would say is this: remember the words of Yoda the Jedi Master. “Wars not make one great.” If you’re thinking of enlisting with a hero complex in mind, don’t do it. You’re too immature and you’re misguided to boot. Military service should be about service; it’s also about sacrifice. And you must always remember you may have to make the “ultimate” sacrifice, which is a euphemism for getting killed.
You’re your own person: Do you what you think is right, and good luck.
This photo by Jonathan Ernst of Reuters shows the “Gold Star” tree at the White House. It’s a tribute to “the fallen” in recent wars. That expression, “the fallen,” is truly a lamentable euphemism. Of course, we should remember the dead, for which we have Memorial Day and “gardens of stone,” i.e. cemeteries. Should we also remember the dead as ornaments on a Christmas tree? I have my doubts here.
The other day, retired General Michael Flynn called for “one religion under God” in the United States.
Ah, General Flynn, we already have one religion of militant nationalism and imperialism, and we already have one god, the Pentagod, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com.
First, one religion. This weekend I watched the New England Patriots play the Cleveland Brown during which a Pentagon recruiting commercial broke out. The coaches wore camouflage jackets and caps, the game started with military flyovers of combat jets, and there even was a mass military swearing-in ceremony hosted by a four-star general and admiral. That same general claimed during an on-field interview during the game that the military is what keeps America free, which might just be the best definition of militarism that I’ve heard.
(Aside: In a true democracy, the military is seen as a necessary evil, because all militaries are essentially undemocratic. The goal of a true democracy is to spend as little as possible on the military while still providing for a robust defense.)
Here’s an illustration, sent by a friend, of America’s one religion:
So, according to the NFL and the mainstream media, “all of us” need to honor “our” military and indeed anyone who’s ever worn a uniform, no questions asked, apparently. I wore a military uniform for 24 years: four years as a cadet, twenty as a military officer, and I’m telling you this is nonsense — dangerous nonsense. Don’t “salute” authority. Question it. Challenge it. Hold it accountable and responsible. At the very least, be informed about it. And don’t mix sports, which is both business and entertainment, with military service and the machinery of war.
OK, so now let’s talk about America’s god. As I argue below, it certainly isn’t the Jesus Christ I learned about by reading the New Testament and studying the Gospels in CCD. America has never worshipped that god. Clearly the god we worship — at least as measured by money and societal influence — is the Pentagod, which leads me to my latest article at TomDispatch. Enjoy!
The Pentagon As Pentagod
Who is America’s god? The Christian god of the beatitudes, the one who healed the sick, helped the poor, and preached love of neighbor? Not in these (dis)United States. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we speak proudly of One Nation under God, but in the aggregate, this country doesn’t serve or worship Jesus Christ, or Allah, or any other god of justice and mercy. In truth, the deity America believes in is the five-sided one headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
In God We Trust is on all our coins. But, again, which god? The one of “turn the other cheek”? The one who found his disciples among society’s outcasts? The one who wanted nothing to do with moneychangers or swords? As Joe Biden might say, give me a break.
America’s true god is a deity of wrath, whose keenest followers profit mightily from war and see such gains as virtuous, while its most militant disciples, a crew of losing generals and failed Washington officials, routinely employ murderous violence across the globe. It contains multitudes, its name is legion, but if this deity must have one name, citing a need for some restraint, let it be known as the Pentagod.
Yes, the Pentagon is America’s true god. Consider that the Biden administration requested a whopping $753 billion for military spending in fiscal year 2022 even as the Afghan War was cratering. Consider that the House Armed Services Committee then boosted that blockbuster budget to $778 billion in September. Twenty-five billion dollars extra for “defense,” hardly debated, easily passed, with strong bipartisan support in Congress. How else, if not religious belief, to explain this, despite the Pentagod’s prodigal $8 trillion wars over the last two decades that ended so disastrously? How else to account for future budget projections showing that all-American deity getting another $8 trillion or so over the next decade, even as the political parties fight like rabid dogs over roughly 15% of that figure for much-needed domestic improvements?
Paraphrasing Joe Biden, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you worship. In that context, there can’t be the slightest doubt: America worships its Pentagod and the weapons and wars that feed it.
Prefabricated War, Made in the U.S.A.
I confess that I’m floored by this simple fact: for two decades in which “forever war” has served as an apt descriptor of America’s true state of the union, the Pentagod has failed to deliver on any of its promises. Iraq and Afghanistan? Just the most obvious of a series of war-on-terror quagmires and failures galore.
That ultimate deity can’t even pass a simple financial audit to account for what it does with those endless funds shoved its way, yet our representatives in Washington keep doing so by the trillions. Spectacular failure after spectacular failure and yet that all-American god just rolls on, seemingly unstoppable, unquenchable, rarely questioned, never penalized, always on top.
Talk about blind faith!
To read the rest of my article, please go to TomDispatch here. Here’s my conclusion:
Yet, before I bled Air Force blue, before I was stationed in a cathedral of military power under who knows how many tons of solid granite, I was raised a Roman Catholic. Recently, I caught the words of Pope Francis, God’s representative on earth for Catholic believers. Among other entreaties, he asked “in the name of God” for “arms manufacturers and dealers to completely stop their activity, because it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead.”
Which country has the most arms manufacturers? Which routinely and proudly leads the world in weapons exports? And which spends more on wars and weaponry than any other, with hardly a challenge from Congress or a demurral from the mainstream media?
And as I stared into the abyss created by those questions, who stared back at me but, of course, the Pentagod.
Few people will be surprised to learn that the U.S. military is about conformity. Uniformity. Heck, it’s one reason why we wear uniforms to begin with. To a certain extent, individuality is tolerated but only if it’s harmless and doesn’t interfere with unit cohesion or performance — and, not just performance but image.
I can’t count the number of times I heard about my Air Force “family” when I wore the uniform, with the message I had to go along to get along; we’re all family, so stop grumbling and enjoy your “family” time.
A heavy stress on conformity can be a particular burden to civilian spouses, however, who didn’t necessarily think they were enlisting when their partner signed up and donned a uniform. In the bad old days, wives of officers were especially burdened with expectations. If they didn’t join officers’ wives’ clubs and otherwise “support” their husbands, they might find themselves ostracized from the “family.” Their husbands might see their careers suffer as well, not exactly a dynamic that promotes family values and amity at home.
Those bad old days are not entirely over, notes Andrea Mazzarino at TomDispatch.com, and being the wife of a U.S. Naval officer, she should know. I urge you to read her article here at TomDispatch. Nowadays, pressure takes new forms, notably on social media, that crazy 24/7/365 world, with email, Instagram, and Facebook posts (among other social sites) being scrutinized incessantly for right-thinking and right behavior, as judged by the self-anointed keepers of conformity and uniformity.
Militaries, again you won’t be surprised to learn, are not known to embrace criticism and non-conformity, which is why they should be kept as small as possible within a democracy that is supposed to celebrate or at least tolerate critiques and eccentrics. But here’s the rub: The more America celebrates its military and feeds it with money. the more it reinforces anti-democratic forces and tendencies within our larger society. And that’s not a good thing in a country where money is speech, i.e. where the richest already rule. (Which is no surprise to military members, as we all know the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.)
Here’s an excerpt from Mazzarino’s article. Believe me, she knows of what she speaks.
Eyes Are Always On You
I know what it means to be watched all too carefully, a phenomenon that’s only grown worse in the war-on-terror years. I’m a strange combination, I suspect, being both a military spouse and an anti-war-on-terror activist. As I’ve discovered, the two sit uncomfortably in what still passes for one life. In this country in these years, having eyes on you has, sadly enough, become a common and widespread phenomenon. When it’s the government doing it, it’s called “surveillance.” When it’s your peers or those above you in the world of the military spouse, there’s no word for it at all.
Now, be patient with me while I start my little exploration of such an American state at the most personal level before moving on to the way in which we now live in ever more of a — yes — surveillance state.
A Navy Wife’s Perspective on Military Life, Post-9/11
“The military sounds like the mafia. Your husband’s rank determines how powerful you are.” That was a good friend’s response, a decade or so ago, when a more experienced Navy wife shamed me for revealing via text message that my husband’s nuclear submarine would soon return to port. Her spouse had been assigned to the same boat for a year longer than mine and she headed up the associated Family Readiness Group, or FRG.
Such FRGs, led by officers’ wives, are all-volunteer outfits that are supposed to support the families of the troops assigned to any boat. In a moment of thoughtless excitement, I had indeed texted another spouse, offering a hand in celebrating our husbands’ imminent return, the sort of party that, as the same woman had told me, “All wives help with to thank our guys for what they do for us. It’s key to command morale.”
She had described the signs other wives had been making under the direction of both the captain’s wife’s and hers, as well as the phone chain they had set up to let us know the moment the boat would arrive so that we could rush to the base to greet it. In response to my message, she’d replied in visibly angry form (that is, in all capital letters), “NEVER, EVER INDICATE IN ANY WAY OVER TEXT THAT THE BOAT WILL BE RETURNING SOON. YOU ARE ENDANGERING THEIR LIVES.” She added that I would be excluded from all boat activities if I ever again so much as hinted that such a return was imminent.
Alone in my apartment in a sparsely populated town near the local military base, my heart raced with the threat of further isolation. What would happen because of what I’d done?
And yes, I’d blundered, but not, as became apparent to me, in any way that truly mattered or actually endangered anything or anyone at all — nothing, in other words, that couldn’t have been dealt with in a kinder, less Orwellian fashion, given that this was a supposedly volunteer group.
It was my first little introduction to being watched and the pressure that goes with such surveillance in the world of the military spouse. Years later, when my husband was assigned to another submarine, an officer’s wife at the same naval base had burst into tears telling me about the surprise visit she’d just been paid by three women married to officers of higher rank on other boats stationed at that base.
Sitting across from her in their designer dresses, they insisted she wasn’t doing enough to raise raffle money to pay for a military child’s future education. Am I really responsible for sending another kid to college? That was her desperate question to me. Unable to keep a job, given her husband’s multiple reassignments, she had struggled simply to save enough for the education of her own children. And mind you, she was already providing weekly free childcare to fellow spouses unable to locate affordable services in that town, while counseling some wives who had become suicidal during their husbands’ long deployments.
I could, of course, multiply such examples, but you get the idea. In the war-on-terror-era military, eyes are always on you.
Married to the Military (or the Terror Within)
On paper, the American military strives to “recognize the support and sacrifice” of the 2.6 million spouses and children of active-duty troops. And there are indeed gestures in the right direction — from partnerships with employers who have committed to hiring military spouses to short-term-crisis mental-health support.
I come from a family of veterans. My father and his two brothers served in the military during World War II. My mother’s brother fought at Guadalcanal against the Japanese and was awarded the Bronze Star. Later, my eldest brother enlisted in the Air Force at the tail end of the Vietnam War, which my brother-in-law had fought in as a radio operator attached to the artillery. Their service helped to inspire my decision to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force.
Military service is honorable, not because of wars waged or lives taken, but because of its purpose: to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And this should be the purpose of Veterans Day: to take note of our veterans and their service in upholding the ideals of our Constitution, including freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, a right to privacy, and most of all a government that is responsive to our needs and accountable to our oversight.
Yet since World War II America has fought wars without formal Congressional declarations. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, have lacked the wholehearted support of the American people. They were arguably unnecessary wars in the sense these countries and peoples posed no direct threat to America and our Constitution. Indeed, prosecuting these wars often posed more of a threat to that very Constitution.
Naturally, America associates veterans with wars and combat, and we say the dead made “the ultimate sacrifice,” which indeed they did. But for what purpose, and to what end? We owe it to veterans to ask these questions: for what purposes are we risking their lives, and to what end are these wars being waged? If we can’t answer these simple questions, in terms intimately associated with our Constitution and the true needs of national defense, we should end these wars immediately.
Unending wars are the worst enemy of freedom and liberty. This isn’t just my sentiment. As James Madison put it, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded … No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” America once knew this; we were once a nation that was slow to anger and with little taste for large military establishments.
A few years ago, I stumbled across old sheet music in a bookstore. Catching my eye was the title of the song: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” respectfully dedicated to “Every Mother – Everywhere.” From 1915, this popular song captured American resistance to the calamitous “Great War” that we now call World War I. Anti-war sentiment was strong that year in America, and indeed Woodrow Wilson would be reelected president in 1916 in large part because he had kept Americans out of the war. The lyrics put it plainly: a mother who’d brought her son up “to be my pride and joy” didn’t want to see that same son having “to shoot some other mother’s darling boy.”
The contrast in these lyrics to recent U.S. military recruitment commercials couldn’t be starker. In a new Department of Defense advertising campaign, featuring the catchphrase “Their success tomorrow begins with your support today,” mothers are shown incongruously in military settings asking their sons why they wanted to sign up. Weapons are featured prominently in these ads, but no combat. There’s much talk of teamwork and being part of something larger than yourself but no talk of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of these spots, the young men depicted have convinced their mothers that it’s desirable indeed to have your boy become a soldier.
Recruitment ads, of course, have never been at pains to show the true costs of war. When I was a teen, the Army’s motto was “Be all that you can be.” For the Navy, service was about “adventure.” For the Air Force, it was about “a great way of life.” These ads, by ignoring or eliding war’s costs, have contributed to America’s tighter embrace of war on the world stage and its severe impact, not only on our veterans but on our democracy. America’s strategy of “global reach, global power” has embroiled us in wars of choice that we increasingly choose not to end. Surely, it’s time to chart a more pacific path.
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. On this Veterans Day, let’s remind ourselves that veterans exist to defend our Constitution and our country, but that endless warfare, and intensifying militarism, are in fact among the most pressing dangers to our democracy.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.
Donald Trump attended a high school military academy. But when the Vietnam War came calling, he developed heel spurs that kept him out of the military. In the case of Joe Biden, it was asthma that kept him on the sidelines of that war. Dick Cheney had multiple student deferments and “higher priorities” than serving, as he put it. George W. Bush got a safe spot in the Texas Air National Guard. John Kerry, ironically, did serve in the military during Vietnam but famously turned against that war. His service was “Swift-boated” into infamy even as Bush/Cheney were being applauded by some for their alleged toughness.
When it comes to service in the military, U.S. politicians typically vote with their feet, meaning they double-time away from joining the ranks. This is nothing new, of course. During the U.S. Civil War, the rich could pay for substitutes if they were drafted. When it comes to war, it’s very often a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.
Interestingly, there are two Democratic candidates who are veterans of America’s most recent wars: Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. According to his website, Mayor Pete “served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and took an unpaid seven-month leave during his mayoral term to deploy to Afghanistan. For his counterterrorism work, he earned the Joint Service Commendation Medal.” Sounds impressive, yet a “joint service commendation medal” is a standard-issue medal for any company-grade officer who completes such an assignment without screwing up in a major way. It’s a little like a participation trophy in a Little League tournament.
Despite Mayor Pete’s fairly limited military experience, his web site boasts that if he’s elected president, he’ll take office with the most military experience since George H.W. Bush, who served in the U.S. Navy in combat during World War II.
Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s military record is far more extensive than Mayor Pete’s. She joined the Army National Guard soon after 9/11 and deployed to Iraq during some of the most bitter fighting in that country. She’s currently a major in the Guard and has spoken extensively about how her military service informs her positions against wasteful, regime-change, wars. According to her web site, “Having experienced first-hand the true cost of war, Tulsi made a personal vow to find a way to ensure that our country doesn’t continue repeating the mistakes of the past, sending our troops into war without a clear mission, strategy, or purpose.”
Tonight, there’s yet another Democratic debate featuring Mayor Pete as well as Congresswoman Gabbard. It will be interesting to see if they’re called on specifically for their views on military issues, such as Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria.
In fact, I’d like to hear the views of all twelve Democrats on that stage tonight on the question of America’s forever wars, and why these wars have illustrated that old story of war being in the service of the rich even as the poor pay the ultimate price. Given America’s supine Congress, our presidents have enormous power over life and death in making war across the globe. When are we going to rein that power in? When are we going to stop fighting foolish and destructive wars that have nothing to do with safeguarding America?
Until we honestly — even ruthlessly — address these questions, America will continue to witness generational wars for the rich fought by the poor.
How far we’ve come as a country. Consider the following proclamation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for Memorial Day in 1955:
“Whereas Memorial Day each year serves as a solemn reminder of the scourge of war and its bitter aftermath of sorrow; and Whereas this day has traditionally been devoted to paying homage to loved ones who lie in hallowed graves throughout the land… I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, Monday, the thirtieth of May, 1955, as a day of Nation-wide prayer for permanent peace.”
Permanent peace? What was that hippie peacenik president smoking?
I find it remarkable that talk of peace in America has almost completely disappeared from our public discourse. Permanent war is instead seen as inevitable, the price of confronting evildoers around the world.
Yes, I know Ike’s record as president wasn’t perfect. But compared to today’s presidents, whether Barack “Kill List” Obama or Donald “Make Genocidal Threats” Trump, Ike was positively pacific.
Memorial Day, as Ike said, is a time for us all to remember the sacrifices of those who fought and died for this country. But it’s also a time, as Ike said, to work to eliminate the scourge of war. For the best way to honor our war dead is to work to ensure their ranks aren’t expanded.
Sadly, as Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich notes at TomDispatch.com, those ranks do keep expanding. The names of our latest war dead are memorialized on a little-known wall in Marseilles, Illinois (including the name of Bacevich’s son, who died serving in Iraq). Like Ike, Bacevich knows the costs of war, and like Ike he’s not taken in by patriotic talk about noble sacrifices for “freedom.” As he puts it:
Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Those are strong words that all Americans should consider this Memorial Day weekend. As we consider them, let’s also recall Ike’s 1955 prayer for peace. And, even better, let’s act on it.
Read the rest of Andrew Bacevich’s article here at TomDispatch.
Every now and again I look over my dad’s letters from World War II. He was attached to an armored headquarters company that didn’t go overseas, but he had friends who did serve in Europe during and after the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944. Also, he had two brothers, one who served in Europe attached to a quartermaster (logistics) company in the Army, the other who served in the Pacific as a Marine.
Reading my dad’s letters and those from his friends and brothers, you get a sense of the costs of war. They mention friends who’ve been killed or wounded in action; for example, a soldier who lost both his legs when his tank ran over a mine. (His fellow soldiers took up a collection for him.) They talk about strange things they’ve seen overseas, e.g. German buzz bombs or V-1 rockets, a crude version of today’s cruise missiles. They look forward to furloughs and trips to cities such as Paris. They talk about bad weather: cold, snow, mud. They talk about women (my dad’s brother, Gino, met a Belgian girl that he wanted to marry, but it was not to be). But perhaps most of all, they look forward to the war’s end and express a universal desire to ditch the military for civilian life.
All of my dad’s friends wanted to get out of the military and restart their civilian lives. They didn’t want a military career — not surprising for draftees who thought of themselves as citizen-soldiers (emphasis on the citizen). In their letters, they never refer to themselves as “warriors” or “warfighters” or “heroes,” as our society is wont to do today when talking about the troops. War sucked, and they wanted no part of it. One guy was happy, as he put it, that the Germans were getting the shit kicked out of them, and another guy was proud his armored unit had a “take no prisoners” approach to war, but this animus against the enemy was motivated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible.
Reading these letters written by citizen-soldiers of the “greatest generation” reminds me of how much we’ve lost since the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the “all volunteer” military. Since the 9/11 attacks in particular, we’ve witnessed the rise of a warrior/warfighter ideal in the U.S. military, together with an ethos that celebrates all troops as “heroes” merely for the act of enlisting and putting on a uniform. My dad and his friends would have scoffed at this ethos — this idolization of “warriors” and “heroes” — as being foreign to a citizen-soldier military. Back then, the country that boasted most of warriors and heroes was not the USA: it was Nazi Germany.
Discarding the citizen-soldier ideal for a warrior ethos has been and remains a major flaw of America’s post-Vietnam military. It has exacerbated America’s transition from a republic to an empire, even as America’s very own wannabe Roman emperor, Donald Trump, tweets while America burns.
Men (and women) of the greatest generation served proudly if reluctantly during World War II. They fought to end the war as quickly as possible, and they succeeded. America’s endless wars today and our nation’s rampant militarization dishonor them and their sacrifices. If we wish to honor their service and sacrifice, we should bring our troops home, downsize our empire and our military budget, and end our wars.
Former Army Ranger Rory Fanning has a thoughtful article at TomDispatch.com on why young men should not join the Army to fight the war on terror in distant lands.
Here’s an excerpt:
Believe me, it [the Afghan War] was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission… I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.
If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003 … Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world. Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.
Fanning makes persuasive points here: How the U.S. military bungled its wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan; how often Iraqi and Afghan innocents were killed due to bad intelligence and the usual deadly mistakes associated with war; how the wars fed, and continue to feed, a cycle of violence that is perpetuated by new U.S. troop deployments and weapons sales (with respect to weapons sales, see this excellent article by Peter Van Buren, which details how the U.S. is hawking M1 Abrams main battle tanks to the Iraqis).
Yet persuading young American men against joining the military, let alone convincing them not to strive to be elite Rangers, is not, sadly, an exercise in logic. In American society today, young men, especially from the working classes, seek an identity and a status that affirms masculinity. They want to earn the respect of their peers, parents, and prospective dates (and mates). American society provides few options for such men, especially if they’re living in straitened circumstances in dead-end jobs. Consider that many physical jobs, such as working in a warehouse, pay only slightly better than minimum wage, with weekly hours curtailed so that employers don’t have to provide health care.
Military service, which exudes masculinity while conveying societal respect (and free health care, among other benefits), is in many ways the most viable option for working-class men (and more than a few women, obviously). Like it or not, young men often aspire to being “the biggest and baddest,” or at least serving with a unit of such men. They seek community and a sense of belonging within unapologetically masculine settings. They may also have dreams of being heroes, or at least of proving themselves as capable within a community of likeminded tough guys.
American society bombards such impressionable young men with images of soldiers, often deified in movies like “Act of Valor” or “Lone Survivor.” Consider the popular success of “American Sniper,” with its depiction of the resolute sniper as avenger and punisher. Movies like this are powerful in persuading impressionable youth to sign on the dotted line as volunteers for military service.
Military service, which conveys personal dignity, adds a dash of grandeur. By joining the military, you become part of something much larger than yourself. A sense of masculine challenge, especially in elite units like the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, combined with societal respectability prove alluring to young men. Sadly, no amount of logic about the lack of wisdom and efficacy of America’s war on terror will convince them otherwise.
Some will say there’s nothing wrong with this. Why not encourage young men to join the military and to fight in foreign lands? Yet if those fights serve fallacious causes that amount to strategic folly, our troops’ sacrifices amount to little.
One thing we can do: American society should provide more jobs for young men that convey respect within masculine codes but which don’t require donning a uniform and killing an enemy overseas.
For nearly a decade, I taught working-class students, mostly young men, in rural Pennsylvania. My students came to class wearing camo fatigues. Many looked like they had just climbed down from a tree stand in the woods (a big holiday for my students was the first day of rifle deer season). They drove pickup trucks, listened to country music, dipped Skoal or smoked Marlboros. They’re not guys who aspire to be metrosexuals sipping lattes at Starbucks. They’re looking for a job that screams “man,” and sometimes they find it: in welding, as a heavy equipment operator, in residential construction, and so on.
But for those who can’t find such “masculine” vocations that provide decent pay and benefits, military service is powerfully alluring, and almost impossible to resist, especially when there are so few alternatives.
In September 2008, I called for a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, national service that is dedicated to rebuilding America. We need to instill an ethic of national service that goes beyond war and killing. An ethic that inspires young men with patriotic pride and that conveys societal identities that appeal to them as men.
What we need, in short, are fewer “American snipers” and more American workers and builders.