Thanking Vets

After ten long years, I am finally seeing serious public discourse on thanking vets for their service.  Andrew Sullivan recently started an ongoing thread in which several vets, myself included, expressed their discomfort with being thanked.  The next round of emails included one from a reader upset with our lack of grace.  He stated that,

“If I hold the door open for you, and you thank me, I don’t interpret that as you suggesting that the only reason I held the door was for your thanks.”

I understand that people have a range of mostly well-meaning reasons for thanking us.  Most are genuinely grateful that someone else has volunteered to put himself or herself between them and a bullet.  A shrinking number do it for the shitty Fox News reasons–they are proud to send me off to die for nothing.  All wish to avoid a repeat of the now-mythicized mistreatment of Vietnam veterans.

But my point is that many of us do not feel that we held the door open for any American citizen unless that person happened to be standing next to us in Iraq or Afghanistan.  It is out of a lack of self-righteousness that we are uncomfortable being thanked for walking around in circles trying not to get blown up, slacking off in our often ridiculous duties when we judged that no other servicemembers would die as a consequence, and in all likelihood creating more enemies of the United States by forcibly occupying foreign countries.  If I affected national security by obeying deployment orders, it was to make America less safe.  It just does not feel good to be thanked for that.

To compound this dilemma, the vast majority of war crimes, atrocities, and much more common instances of just being a jerk to the locals go unreported and/or unpunished.  Consider that SSG Gibbs and his squadmates came this close to getting away with multiple acts of premeditated murder that were well known to the local villagers.  Gibbs and Co. were only caught after coming up on the radar during an unrelated hashish investigation.

Most servicemembers do not commit or endorse the crimes of SSG Gibbs and his cohort.  But to the US taxpayers out there who care what goes on in your name, it bears your consideration that as far as we know, one single soldier was weighing the decision to report his squad leader and accept the consequences (which, almost by definition in such cases, include possible death by revenge).  Even though I didn’t commit any war crimes, I am ever cognizant that the thanker would never know if I had.

I will note that it matters who is doing the thanking.  If I can tell they are a Fox News asshole, my overwhelming priority is to extract myself from the situation as fast as possible.  If they are an otherwise well-meaning civilian, I just humbly say, “you’re welcome” and try not to encourage elaboration on the subject.  Perhaps the only time I’m truly comfortable accepting the thanks is when it’s from a combat veteran (most often an active-duty officer or past-war vet), not out of cliquishness but because they have the context to know for what they are thanking me and for what they are not.

As I noted on Ricks’ blog, I do think that there is room for gestures of appreciation and hospitality toward combat veterans.  “Welcome home” is appropriate.  My issue is specifically with the notion of thanking a vet for some service, any service, in the military.  There are vets I know who, to this day, cannot tolerate any criticism of the war in Iraq because their psyche demands that it be an act of unqualified beneficence.  Lavishing them with adulation for the simple act of graduating from boot camp is not helping them to grow up and move on.  Instead, it insulates thanked and thanker alike from their citizenly responsibility for the current wars.

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