The Right Way to Honor the Troops

Contrary to the Trump administration’s suggestions, the best method for honoring soldiers is simply learning what they do.

U.S. Army soldiers salute during an anniversary ceremony of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011 at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. (John Moore/Getty Images)
U.S. Army soldiers salute during an anniversary ceremony of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011 at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. (John Moore/Getty Images)

By instructing the American people in how to properly honor the U.S. military — specifically, by avoiding critique of military policy — the Donald Trump White House has intensified the long-standing bipartisan practice of politicizing the service of U.S. troops. This would be unhealthy in any deliberative democracy. It’s especially so in one like ours, where the military plays such an outsized role in politics and social life.

Our troops deserve to be thanked for their service. But the best method for honoring them might be the least practiced of all: learning what they actually do. This has the advantage of being something Americans can do today, before the next war starts, or before the inevitable announcement of troop casualties. American citizens have always had this choice — they can be passive recipients of White House and Pentagon messaging, or empowered citizens who are better informed about military policy and less susceptible to political manipulation.

To get started, here are 20 important aspects of U.S. military policy that anyone can explore further by clicking the embedded links. The amount and granularity of such information has decreased since 9/11 as each administration becomes less and less transparent. The reports and databases linked below do not necessarily include covert or clandestine missions, and some are undoubtedly incomplete even beyond such omissions.

But the U.S. armed forces are still relatively open to scrutiny compared to other great power militaries. That’s why honoring the troops by learning what they do costs nothing more than the price of a reliable internet connection — and why there’s no excuse not to set aside the necessary time.


  • The locations of U.S. active-duty, National Guard and Reserve, and Department of Defense civilians deployed around the world.


  • The number of service members estimated to have died in each of America’s wars.


  • The number of service members who have died supporting America’s wars since 9/11.


  • The number of Pentagon contractors who have died in the post-9/11 wars, from which countries, and working for which companies.


  • The number of civilians, national military and police, and opposition fighters who are estimated to have died in those wars.






  • The number of bombs dropped each month in the wars in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan.


  • The number of civilians estimated to have been killed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan.


  • The lead federal inspector general’s assessment of progress in the wars in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan.



  • The number of total aircraft the U.S. military possess, by type and service.




  • A primer on how military officers are instructed to think about and plan


  • The number of weapons the United States sells, and to which countries.


Most senior Pentagon officials — both civilian and military — would prefer that you not learn about the actual conduct of military policy. These officials care tremendously about how the armed forces are perceived and work tirelessly to shape public perceptions. This is why the Pentagon spends nearly $600 million annually on public relations, gives more than $10 million each year to professional sports teams, and maintains a suite of “entertainment liaison offices” on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. They want you to imagine a military defined by heroism and technology — a military of surprise deployment homecomings and videos of precise airstrikes.

But that is only one part of the story, and a small one at that. The Department of Defense is more akin to a 2-million-employee multinational holding company, but one that cannot audit its books and is wholly reliant upon taxpayer support. Fewer than one in eight are deployed outside the United States at any one time, and less than 4 percent are part of special operations forces, despite those elite fighters’ inflated representation by Hollywood and the media. Day to day, the vast majority of service members are doing a wide range of tasks to support the defense enterprise, from civil affairs to acquisitions to managing logistics to medical care. Their missions are quiet and essential but go unknown to the general public.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that politicians and policymakers rarely devote as much thought to the troops as their pious words suggest. In most cases, they want to be associated with them because Americans routinely select the military as the most trusted and respected institution in society. If accountants were more respected, politicians would solemnly defend the honor of CPAs and proclaim them beyond criticism. But there’s no reason U.S. citizens should succumb to such cynicism about the service and sacrifices of troops.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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