Hollow Words in Airports

I don’t know exactly when the habit of civilians publicly thanking uniformed military personnel “for your service” caught on. But as a painful but very informative feature story by David Zucchino and David Cloud of the L.A. Times on the increasing rift between military and non-military cultures illustrates, it’s not making things better:

“We glorify the military in this country in a way that’s really weird,” said Eric Harmeling, 21, a Carrboro [NC]-area resident who often argues with his father, a politically conservative minister, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s like the Roman legions…. It’s like we’re being told to kneel down and worship our heroes.”

That’s not the way military personnel and recent veterans see things:

The military-civilian divide is not marked by particular animosity or resentment on the civilian side. In airports and restaurants, civilians thank men and women in uniform for their service. They cheer veterans at ballgames and car races.

What most don’t realize is how frequently such gestures ring hollow.

“So many people give you lip service and offer fake sympathy. Their sons and daughters aren’t in the military, so it’s not their war. It’s something that happens to other people,” said Phillip Ruiz, 46, a former Army staff sergeant in Tennessee who was wounded twice during three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Douglas Pearce, a former Army lieutenant who fought in Afghanistan and is now a marriage and family counselor in Nashville, said civilians seem to think they “can assuage their guilt with five seconds in the airport.”

“What they’re saying is, ‘I’m glad you served so that I didn’t have to, and my kids won’t have to.'”

Ironically, during the era of mass conscription there wasn’t nearly as much of a brouhaha:

George Baroff, enjoying an outdoor lunch at an organic food co-op in Carrboro one recent afternoon, said he understood the military quite well: He served three years as a draftee during World War II before eventually becoming a psychology professor in nearby Chapel Hill.

Baroff, 90, finds himself startled when people learn of his war record and say, as Americans often do to soldiers these days, “Thank you for your service.”

“You never, ever heard that in World War II. And the reason is, everybody served,” he said.

In Baroff’s view, today’s all-volunteer military has been robbed of the sense of shared sacrifice and national purpose that his generation enjoyed six decades ago. Today’s soldiers carry a heavier burden, he said, because the public has been disconnected from the universal responsibility and personal commitment required to fight and win wars.

So what’s the answer to this growing rift between a “warrior class” that never feels really appreciated and a citizenry engaged in hollow gestures of support? Bring back the draft?

I don’t think so, though some truly robust national service program would not hurt.

What civilians truly owe to the military is consistent material support for veterans–particularly those injured in combat or for the families of those who perished–and a sustained effort to ensure lives are not unnecessarily put at risk in wars big or small that aren’t worth supporting or even knowing about. It may seem kind of obvious to many of us that you do not “support the troops” by sending them into the wrong conflicts with the wrong mission and the wrong leadership. But unfortunately, a lot of people think glorifying warfare itself is the best way to honor our surrogate warriors–along with hollow words in airports.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.