Today is Veterans’ Day in the USA, also known as Armistice Day in other parts of the world, and I thought I’d reflect on the day with a few out-takes from my recent “Summer Job” project (which you can see here if you haven’t yet).
Most people don’t have the day off of work, but I do and so I figured it was appropriate to spend the day reflecting in a more serious manner on what today means. I find that in many parts of life in the US, the rhetoric toward veterans and service-members is frequently over-the-top and feels…disingenuous. As a season ticket holder at the Minnesota Timberwolves this year, I attended the match on Friday night, which happened to be “Military Appreciation Night”. Essentially, free tickets were available to military members and veterans if you wanted them. The pre-game show included a flag-folding ceremony, a color guard, and verbal nod to veterans of all branches of the military, on top of the usual national anthem. On top of that, the club was selling some pretty hideous-looking camouflage Timberwolves T-shirts. Throughout the game, the MC kept insisting the crowd get one, as they were the “deal of the day” at only $18.
But what does “military appreciation” really mean? Is it nothing more than a commemorative T-shirt and 10% off your pancakes at Denny’s? To what extent is the rhetoric all around this country toward veterans and military members really meaningful, and to what extent is it not? In the post-9/11 era of everlasting-war, when patriotism has been reduced to a (now-mandatory, seemingly) US-flag lapel pin for the politicians who send us to far-flung places across the globe to protect America’s interests, what does it mean to appreciate the military?
To cut back to the Timberwolves game I mentioned before, the half-time show was the strippers-cum-cheerleaders known as the Timberwolves Dancers. There is nothing unusual about this, as they generally shake, rattle, and roll about throughout every game. However, on “Military Appreciation Night” they had choreographed a 1940s-inspired USO dance routine, complete with the camouflage miniskirts and big-band music. Clearly, this was meant to harken back to a time when things were easier; in fact, much of the “military appreciation” that happens in this country has a foothold in what is widely known as the “Greatest Generation”–that is, those who went off to war and defeated the Germans and Japanese in World War II. This is not meant in any way to belittle or degrade the sacrifices made by civilian and military personnel during that war, who endured an awful lot and set in motion the events that would lead to America’s era of prosperity and unparalleled influence across the globe, and made the twentieth century “America’s Century”.
Since then, war has become…complicated. Less easy to understand or appreciate are the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (x2), and Afghanistan, to name only the biggest ones of the past half-century. The heroes are villains are more nuanced, and there is no black-and-white; in fact, more recent conflicts have no good or bad guys, simply different perspectives on a common conflict.
When returning from war overseas, does a veteran really want to be paraded around in front of a crowd at a basketball game? Veterans, if I can speak for all of us, do not want to be treated as a novelty, posing with a mascot and cheerleaders before being whisked away to make room for more entertainment.
After all, the question has to be asked: is all of the song and dance meant to make veterans feel appreciated, or is it created to make others feel as if they are appreciating them? I believe it is the latter, and this is precisely why I use the word disingenuous when describing this rhetoric that a large portion of the general public seems to engage in, almost unconsciously at this point, so ingrained in our national psyche is this obsession with the military. “Military appreciation” is a more of a way, I would argue, to absolve our collective responsibility or guilt about what many veterans endure in the name of “America’s interests”.
And so, veterans are treated as a novelty in many instances. The rhetoric is everywhere, and there is a certain way we talk about veterans and military members: it’s always glowing, and involves frequent use of the word “hero”. However, genuine appreciation, and real support is lacking. This is not meant to say that we deserve special treatment; in fact, I don’t want to be treated any differently than anyone else. I received educational assistance and other benefits for my service. I also get paid reasonably well and have a solid set of health benefits and time off. I get to travel a fair amount and see things I might not otherwise get to. All said, I think I have been reimbursed for my service just fine. Then again, I haven’t been in combat.
We all sign up knowing that it can happen. Deployments are matter-of-fact these days and come with varying degrees of risk. Still, we all raise our hand and take the oath of enlistment knowing that it is a possibility (some jobs more than others), but what we ask in return is to only be sent into harm’s way if it is absolutely necessary. The service-members I know are good, honest people and are happy to serve their country, but they do not want to do so needlessly or without justification. Today’s politicians do not share this sentiment, for the most part. After all, another big issue in today’s military is the social class from which the large majority of those serving are drawn–the sons and daughters of politicians and the wealthy do not generally serve. This is now a task left to those who do not have an alternative to putting themselves in harm’s way. Long gone are the days of the military representing the society at large.
The folks returning from overseas deserve appreciation. They also deserve respect, and they deserve a good handshake and an authentic expression of gratitude. But that’s not all–they deserve to know that their sacrifices weren’t for nothing, and they should return home knowing that although we can’t really understand what they went through, there will be funding for programs to help them adapt, and confront a myriad mental and physical health problems they are now facing. All too often, this does not happen.
It’s not just overseas that service-members rush off to. In the aftermath of Katrina and more recently Sandy, National Guards-men and -women went in (along with other disaster relief agencies) to help people, and ensure medical attention and supplies to those who needed them, and ensure that despite the conditions, people could cast their ballot on election day.
So if you see a veteran, or an active service-member, shake their hand. Tell them you appreciate their service. Let them know that what they may have to do, or may have done in Vietnam, Korea, or Iraq, in service of their country is not forgotten. The best thing you can tell them is that you plan to hold politicians accountable; that you do not support sending them into harm’s way frivolously, and that it is only a last resort. If he (or she) is anything like me, he’ll appreciate that more than anything, and when he shakes your hand he’ll tell you that if it is necessary, he won’t hesitate. He’ll go so you don’t have to.
If you’ve got his back, then he’s got yours.
To all the veterans out there: Happy Veterans’ Day. You deserve it, and I mean that sincerely and completely. Thanks for volunteering you go into harm’s way if we need you to, and I’m sorry that you’ve had to bear that burden all too often.