America Is Still at War, Americans Barely Notice
Despite the celebration, the public has largely disengaged from its warrior class
“Thank you for your service” is a phrase that’s going to get tossed around a lot today. That’s because America loves to recognize its veterans.
Veterans are a staple of heartwarming commercials and sports events. Sports and patriotism in particular seem to go hand-in-hand. But recently it came to light that the Pentagon has been paying for a lot of that love. The Department of Defense handed football teams millions of dollars during the 2014 fiscal year alone for “paid patriotism.”
There’s a whole cottage industry built around showing support for the military. Much like the bought and paid for football patriotism, many of these shows of support are empty, insincere and self-serving.
For instance, though the vast majority American business owners say they support the troops, many managers openly admit a hesitancy to hiring veterans citing concerns about PTSD-related episodes.
In part, that’s because a very small number of Americans — fewer than one percent — actually serve in the military. And a decreasing number of Americans have any relatives in the military, in no small part because many recruits themselves come from military families with a generational tradition.
That means fewer and fewer Americans actually know any veterans.
As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once summed up, the average American believes military service “no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.”
Today we live in a country where the government apparently can’t formulate straight answers about whether American troops are currently engaged “in combat” or not.
Americans have continued to fight and die since the official “end of combat operations” in Afghanistan. In Iraq, militants killed Delta Force Sgt. First Class Joshua Wheeler last month during a hostage-rescue mission in the north — the first official combat death in the fight against Islamic State — even as U.S. officials tried to downplay Delta’s involvement in the raid as “purely advisory.”
If more Americans had direct ties to the military, it would be almost impossible to play this game of semantics. If Americans knew it was their kids, their parents and their friends that were in harm’s way it would be absurd to even entertain the “no boots on the ground” narrative. American troops have after all been taking and returning fire with Islamic State militants in Iraq since well before Wheeler’s death.
To pretend otherwise is a fantasy.
Whether you’re for or against America’s involvement in these wars, calling these engagements anything other than “wars” is a disservice to the men and women fighting them — and a dangerous tunnel for America to walk down.
More and more, Americans get most of their exposure to veterans and the military through movies, video games and halftime shows. Americans get most of their ideas about what soldiers are like, and what their jobs are like, from pop culture. They don’t get it during Thanksgiving as a relative tells them about their recent experiences overseas — that’s somebody else’s life.
For most Americans, veterans exist on the screen and in photos. The civil-military gap is widening. Whether it’s at a ballgame, a job interview or a house party, when you hear someone bust out a “thank you for your service” — what they increasingly really mean is “I don’t know anything about what you do and I’m not sure how to relate to you.”
And that’s a problem.
For hawkish Americans, it has become easier for them to think of soldiers as superheroes. For the more dovish, it becomes easier to think of them as heartless, bloodthirsty brutes. They become archetypes, commodities and props in political narrative. It becomes easy to forget the people wearing the uniform.
The military is a fundamentally human institution. Wars have human costs. But Americans have become increasingly insulated from that cost.
War has faded into the background of American life — a job for someone else.
Today, I don’t want to talk about whether we should be at war or not. But we are a nation at war. In the past 15 years, American troops have fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Much of this was “secret,” but in the information age, there are increasingly few true secrets.
I don’t pretend to know how to get America to re-engage with its warrior class. But we need to start bridging that gap. Americans need to understand the cost of war, and how it affects the young men and women who fight it.
So this Veterans’ Day, I ask you to remember that our soldiers are at war and that they are facing down their enemies in combat. And their boots are firmly planted on the ground.