Today is Veterans Day. When I hear the ritually grateful expression, “Thank you for your service,” offered to a veteran or current military service member the speaker has never met before, I wonder why the statement makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it is because such ritual expressions of appreciation for military service reflect no real understanding of the actual sacrifices the veteran may have made.
In most cases I have encountered, the person expressing that ritual gratitude has no idea of the actual service performed by the military service member or veteran to whom s/he has directed the ritual accolade. In such contexts, it just seems a bit hollow. Many such expressions appear as a thoughtless ritual rather than a deep expression of personal gratitude.
A Culture of Pseudo-Patriotism
However, I think that there is more to it than the fact that so many of such expressions consist of empty conformity to a perceived ceremonial obligation to show respect. Some such expressions emanate from civilians who have never experienced the military, no less a combat tour. Yet, others who express that thanks are veterans themselves.
Clearly, however, all such gestures are part of the culture now, an obligatory expression of gratitude for military service “in defense of the nation,” or, especially since 9/11, for the dedication of first responders (firefighters and police officers) who risk their lives to protect the public from disaster or crime.
Does the person reciting, “Thank you for your service,” have any idea of what that service entailed, or what it may have actually defended? I would say that many such expressions of gratitude for service give little thought to the question, “In service to what or whom?” Most simply assume that the service is to us, the people of the USA. That allows the appreciator to feel easily patriotic.
Corruption Conflicts with Patriotism
It is important, of course, to distinguish between the dedicated service of warriors from the machinations of political leaders and parties who so easily send them into harm’s way. We in the US have a long, if mostly unacknowledged, history of heroic warfighting in response to patriotic stories that cover corrupt purposes of politicians and economic interests, which have used and abused warfighters by placing them in service to disguised private, usually corporate, pecuniary ends. We might want to keep in mind that of the many wars fought since the inception of the United States of America, in only a few cases was the “homeland” ever threatened.
Two Kinds of Service
One of the greatest of American war heroes ever, Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, was the only person awarded the Marine Corps Brevet Medal and two Medals of Honor, all for separate actions. Speaking about the wars he engaged in, Butler put it this way in his small outspoken book, War is a Racket, criticizing war profiteering, as well as US military adventurism and nascent fascism. “Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.” His critique of American wars is as relevant today as ever.
We celebrate Veterans Day with far too much complacency, happy to drink a few beers rather than go to that dull job another day. Patriotism is love of country, and that takes vigilance, which is still the price of freedom. The politics of hatred and racism that are on the rise today serve no purpose than to further centralize wealth and power by manipulating people into a false sense of patriotism, such as “white nationalism,” in direct disguised opposition to the love of country. We cannot allow our patriotism to be corrupted by the demagoguery of the rich and powerful.