This last weekend I attended the 10th anniversary of a family friend’s death. A Marine corporal, he was killed in 2005 outside Haditha, Iraq. It was not a festive occasion, needless to say.
He has not been the only loss in my social circle as a result of that war. One has PTSD and seen things that don’t make light table discussion. A childhood friend was paralyzed below the neck from a bullet wound and has no hope of marriage or children.
While thinking about them, I contemplated further the notion of “honoring the troops.”
Obviously for the family who lost their son, it’s not about honoring the troops as much as cherishing the memory of lost loved one. We’ll come back to this later.
The reason Americans as a whole cling deeply to the idea of “honoring those who served” is less political than one might imagine. It’s easy to dismiss it as the result of state propaganda, but I think this ignores both human nature and the actual underlying rationale.
Traditionalists believe in honoring the troops because an indication of a healthy, stable culture is one which honors those who sacrifice for it. A lack of gratitude is a sign of a culture coming apart. This is partly why they are so desperate to maintain the ritual, even if they have trouble justifying it.
Military veterans, on the surface, would appear to make sacrifices for the sake of the country, because it fits with a simplistic view of “sacrifice.” The possibly violent, deadly reality of their work, usually thousands of miles away in less than pleasant conditions against people who usually less than civilized, makes it easy to believe they deserve recognition. The battle scars and wounds help sell this image.
Additionally, warriors have been regarded as the protectors of a community for millennia, from the days of small tribals and clans to the nation states.
The sentimentalism in “honoring the troops” shouldn’t be dismissed, either. It harkens to Norman Rockwell-like days and encourages a sense of unity. It also distracts from the ugly realities of modern America – that one’s fellow Americans are a biggest enemy than anyone outside of it.
Such sentimentalists like to think the true enemies of America are in other lands, maliciously plotting to invade like the Saxons or Hun of old. In fact, the typical next door neighbor will do more to undermine their liberties in the next election than anyone overseas has or will – the nice old lady who speaks endearingly to them will also step into a ballot booth and speed up the nation’s bankruptcy by voting in yet another “bum.”
It is something we do not consider; the American voter has a perceived legitimate authority to take away the rights of their fellow countrymen through participating in the democratic process. This makes them a greater threat than terrorists, who are rightly regarded as criminals and prosecuted for their acts.
The emphasis on “honoring the troops” is a throwback from a bygone era of old when warriors were needed to protect the tribe and feeds into a belief that our nation, our culture, is worth defending against enemies. The complications of the real world and the actual face of the genuine foe, such as the old lady described above, creates confusion and ambiguity where it is neither wanted nor appreciated. Ironically, war is the most morally ambiguous human endeavor yet it is also where people insist the most on black-and-white thinking.
Unfortunately, for all the noise made about “honoring” the troops or veterans, it amounts to very little in terms of providing them comfort or relief from their troubles. A free drink at a local watering hole, a pat on the shoulder, a little praise every Memorial Day and Veterans Day. None of this solves the problems they have to deal with.
Most do not accept the truth about what our military actually does or what the recent conflicts have (not) accomplished because it is such a bitter pill to swallow. Multiple it by ten and you have a sense of the grief the family experiences when all is said and done and the flags are down and the condolences give way to the daily grind of life. The reverence and tribute for the dead is designed to give meaning to a loss because the actual reason for it is unknown, and chances are their death left a wake of devastation from which there has been little to no recovery.
Whenever there is loss, humans have a proclivity to label it as a sacrifice, to make it seem as though it served a greater purpose. When none can be found, pretenses are provided. They “fought for your freedom” and died “protecting your rights.” It is comforting, even though those who say it deep down suspect those who died did so under false pretenses.
The hardest part of this bitter drink is that those who fought were those who suffered for our foreign policy blunders. They are the ones who came back in pine boxes to be grieved by widow and child. They are the ones who returned with PTSD and a high-divorce rate and an apathetic society that pays lip service to their plight but shows no actual sympathy when it counts. They are labeled potential terrorists and receive substandard care at the VA Hospitals. There is no relief from their agony.
Why anyone is shocked at the suicide rate for war vets is itself shocking.
Many of them may have believed they were serving their country at the time and have since realized they were fooled. The humiliation is not to be underestimated. There is a reason Homeland Security labeled Iraq war veterans as potential terrorists. More than one I’ve spoken to have fantasized thoughts of revenge. What tends to keep them from acting on it is resignation that nothing they do will change the situation.
Meanwhile, those who plotted and schemed and knew what needed to be known profited from others’ hardship. Those responsible, those who deserved to suffer the most – because they had the authority – have escaped with little more than an injured reputation among those whom they regard as mundane cretins.
Something to consider: If this is how the government treats those who act on its behalf, its loyal servants who carry out its will with loyalty and obedience, why should anyone trust the state with anything?
I obviously don’t believe we should “honor” anyone for what has been done overseas. But there’s more to be said about the current travesty with war veterans than merely an anti-war stance. Where libertarians struggle is properly framing the discussion. It is difficult to do so, because of the visceral emotions involved and the way in which the offended (war) party is quick to frame it as speaking ill of the dead.
One place to start is by showing that we’re far more interested in , and aware of, their plight than the government that sent them over there in the first place and then chucked them aside when they were no longer needed. Chances are, I – the anti-war noninterventionist – know more about such things than those who most loudly clamor for “honoring the troops.”