Lately, Americans have heard a lot about the military/civilian divide. Retired Marine Corps General John Kelly – President Trump’s current Chief of Staff – recently stretched that divide into a yawning chasm when he made an emotional speech about how men and women in uniform are the best this nation has to offer. As the proud wife of a career Marine, I don’t disagree that service to our country is admirable, but since the towers crumbled on 9/11, we’ve raised servicemembers to those impossibly lofty heights in their place.
I question whether that’s because America truly values her servicemembers. You can find a homeless veteran on nearly every block in every major city. 20 veterans commit suicide every day. We now know that the moral injuries suffered by some veterans cause permanent debilitation. If we really prized them as we say we do, these issues would be good ones to tackle more seriously. So, to me, this hero-worship seems more an effort to assuage our collective guilt for allowing a sliver of us to bear the burden of America’s longest wars, than any true love of our men and women in uniform.
This Veterans Day, cities and towns across America will break out the bunting, play host to Main Street parades, and say thank you to those who have served in the armed forces. I don’t doubt the good intentions of people who sincerely want to honor veterans on a day that’s reserved for this recognition. However, I am bewildered by what we as a nation have allowed to happen over the past sixteen years – all the while waving our flags and loudly proclaiming our support for the troops.
As a military spouse, I feel that our nation has disengaged with the reality of what it means to serve. My husband was commissioned in 2001, and he is fighting the same wars today that he fought then. Our whole adult lives have been nothing but these wars. And we are not unique – it’s true for many servicemembers and their families.
Our military is fighting a “forever war,” and it feels like most Americans think that because they say ‘thank you,’ applaud them at the airport, and fly a flag, that they’ve done their bit. Moreover, we’ve allowed the creation a warrior class, that, after sixteen years of conflict, has inevitably become alienated from the population it serves and protects because that population will never understand their experiences.
Worse, we’ve invented a mythology surrounding them by holding up the image of the servicemember as an idol – the best America can aspire to – that really does nothing more than place an added burden on their all-too-human shoulders. This is unfair to servicemembers and civilians. Service is admirable, but America is more than her military.
When people hear that my husband is a career Marine, they inevitably tell me to thank him for his service. Some of them even go so far as to thank me as well, which always makes me duck my head while the blood rushes to my cheeks in embarrassment. I’m not a servicemember or a veteran. I’m just a wife. But my standing as a spouse gives me the liberty to speak my mind. So, when I tell them that if they really want to thank my husband they should start a peace movement, it leaves most of them speechless.
But I mean it. I believe the best way we can support our veterans, servicemembers and military families is by not wasting their lives and talents on endless wars that have no clear endgame. We can honor them by questioning whether these wars are just. We can demand of our elected officials to be told the truth – are we fighting a “war on terror,” or a war for resources, regime change, and a geopolitical strategy of which most Americans have no concept? Are we continuing these conflicts to “spread freedom and democracy,” or because they feed the coffers of the ever-expanding military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us against in his farewell speech?
If we’re fighting in the Middle East for reasons our government doesn’t advertise when they recruit young men and women to serve, shouldn’t we debate it openly? And if we really are in this for more noble intentions, or to defeat terrorism, after 16 years of sowing chaos in that region, shouldn’t we call it quits and try something else? I’m no expert, but even I can see that our strategy hasn’t worked and we seem to be repeating it ad nauseum.
The war in Vietnam ended in part because of a robust peace movement galvanized by an unpopular draft. America had more in skin in the game back then. Most people knew someone fighting. And although not solely responsible for bringing the war to a close, the peace movement, in addition to the general population’s war fatigue and the administration’s inability to find a reliable ally in theater, added to the weight that tipped the scales.
But today, with less than 1% of the population in uniform, America has very little skin in the game. Our peace movement is almost non-existent and the military/civilian divide grows ever-wider. We are content to simply allow a small sliver of servicemembers and military families to bear the entirety of the burden because these wars don’t affect most of us.
We say thank you, and we fly a flag, and we feel like we’ve done our bit. But it’s not enough.
Since 2001, America has bled $5.6 trillion dollars to these wars. We’ve lost thousands of American lives, and millions of civilians in the Middle East have been killed. There is still no end in sight, and a new generation of an all-recruited force is going to continue to bear the burden for the rest of us.
Are we okay with that? Can we say we support the military, but remain mute about the blood and treasure lost? Can we, in good conscience, do nothing while the current administration threatens new wars with North Korea and Iran? Can Americans continue to send other people’s spouses and children off to die, without being willing to bear even a fraction of the burden themselves?
On this Veterans Day, I ask you America: Who among us loves our servicemembers enough to start a peace movement?