- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Historically, American vets have not been a happy lot. Nor have vets generally been so, which I think is one reason that the Romans sometimes tried to settle them on land at the periphery of the empire.
But nowadays we tend to remember World War II and the GI Bill more than all the contrary examples, and so we tend to see the bitterness of some Vietnam vets as the anomaly, rather than as the usual.
I raise all this because I was thinking over yesterday’s striking essay "You can go strangle yourself with that yellow ribbon," and I wonder if the historical pattern is re-asserting itself. Overall, the comments in response were serious and interesting, except when rule 19 got violated (that’s "hey, no posting comments after 4 drinks or more, I don’t care if it is good bourbon"). Having a discussion like this is one of the things that makes doing this blog rewarding. So, thanks to you all, and especially to "Gold Star Father." The next time I am near Fort Drum, I would like to sit down and talk with you.
Reading over the discussion, these are the questions that occurred to me: Are our new vets souring somehow? And if so, how fundamentally angry are they? I suspect they are not just momentarily pissed, but deeply irreconcilable. If so, where does it go?
I commend you to the comments of "Mixalot87," who has a lot of good observations, ending with, "Let’s be careful what we wish for." That kind of reminds me of a World War II saying I once read: You want something bad enough, you’ll get it bad enough.
And here is one of the most interesting responses, from "Jaylemeux," about why he dislikes expressions of gratitude from strangers:
…when I hear "thank you" from someone I don’t even know, I get pretty disheartened. I’ll concede that my views are probably a bit further out on this than most vets’. I was never convinced by the justification for the Iraq invasion, so I never understood my deployment to be upholding and defending the Constitution or to be protecting the American people. So the only thing for which I can feel legitimately thanked is for abstractly being willing to die had there been a cause worth dying for.
On top of that, I understand my deployment in the Arab world to have made more enemies than enemies I was able to destroy. The Muslim world is pissed that we invaded, they’re pissed that we occupy, and they don’t want to hear our reasons for it. In terms of national security, I believe I involuntarily helped set America back, not forward. It doesn’t feel good to be thanked for that.
The operations in which I participated were almost universally ineffective. Most of what I did operationally was to stand post in tiny boxes while hating the people who ordered me to stand there in 130 degree weather, and walk around in circles while trying not to get blown up. When we did a random OP in an Iraqi house, we chose the house for its air conditioning as much as for its observational qualities. This happened repeatedly over three tours and several changes of SNCO and officer leadership, so the argument that I served under shitbirds isn’t gonna fly.
Then there was the mistreatment of Iraqis, which I must insist was implicitly condoned by the chain of command. No, it wasn’t everyone, and no, it wasn’t necessarily official military policy. But the bottom line is that it happened on both sides of the law and almost always went unpunished in any meaningful sense. I would wager to bet that everyone who served in Iraq before the attacks plummeted has plenty of similar stories that don’t come out except in the presence of very familiar company. So while I agree that it’s unfair to impugn the entire military for the inappropriate actions of a few, it’s also unfair to lump me in with the jerks by issuing all of us a blanket "thank you for your service" without examining my/their individual conduct. Most people (even many military officers, I think) really have no idea what goes on outside the wire, or why enlisted infantrymen do what they do.
"Welcome home"? Entirely appropriate. But I feel really uncomfortable hearing "thank you" for something I feel was a waste of taxpayer dollars and of global goodwill toward the US.