Kimberly C. Field is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and former deputy assistant secretary of state. She works on development and conflict transition with the consulting firm Creative Associates International.
I am a veteran. I love my tribe. This is a love letter to the military and the American people.
There is rich camaraderie formed by the shared purpose and challenge of armed service, and a solemn, and lasting, sacrifice is asked of all those we place into combat. The leaders of the military have a deep and genuine tough love for the wonderful young people they guide; they also bear the responsibility to recruit and sustain a quality all-volunteer force. All this naturally drives military leaders to amplify and emphasize the accolades of military service.
This Veterans Day, however, I was somewhat taken aback at veteran sentiment that the expression “thank you for your service” felt insincere, as well as by veterans congratulating ourselves for being among the special group who serves: the 1 percent. An elitist undercurrent keeps Americans at arm’s length from important conversations about their military — and only veterans and senior military leaders can address it. I see at least six reasons why we should.
First, the military inculcates selfless service. This value is incompatible with “look at me” or “you don’t get it.” The dissonance is not conducive to a healthy culture. Shy of the sacrifice of life, limb, eyesight, sanity or other disabling injury, military members may have to serve without regular public recognition. Americans have earned our trust by giving their volunteers everything we have asked for and more over these past 16 years.
Second, military service deserves honest explanation. We veterans should be explaining that service has many purposes. It offers young people a tangible demonstration of the limits of individualism and the value of serving something bigger than themselves, while also giving them skills, discipline and, for many, time to grow up. And military service offers a rare common American experience, transcending the differences of urban vs. rural, West vs. East, Democrat vs. Republican. In serving, I personally feel — most of us feel — we have received as much as we have given. It’s okay to say so.
Third, glorification dumbs down patriotism. The anthem, the flag, the Fourth of July are about so much more than the military. Regardless of what you think about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the idea that it was an insult to anyone in uniform is preposterous. Our military exists only to protect the things that make America an exceptional democracy. It should never be waved about to dismiss nonviolent expression of dissent or to deflect important American conversations.
Fourth, the notion of a sacrifice supposedly borne only by an extraordinary 1 percent of Americans contributes to a false idea that everything the military does should be done. The truth of the matter is that we do not need 10 percent of Americans in uniform; if we did, I have full confidence the ranks would remain full. Instead of stressing how we are different, military leaders should say: “Our ranks are filled with folks just like you and your children; you know these people.” Perhaps, then, Americans might demand to be part of the conversation about why we are in Niger.
Fifth, the perception of elitism — or worse, dismissal of those who don’t serve — encourages undue deference to military leaders. Such deference leads to too much sway in matters of security policy. Military leaders are highly conservative in recommending the use of force, but military solutions are all we know. We cannot be expected to have mastered those things that diplomats, developers, economists and others provide, or to support resourcing of other organizations if it means real cuts to our own. There is continued risk of perpetuating never-ending war by crowding out those who can bring more enduring solutions to the table.
Finally, military leaders simply owe to the troops we love a more nuanced conversation about a society worth serving. Every day, about 22 veterans commit suicide. Most have not been in combat. Reasons for this devastating number include isolation and purposelessness. It might be helpful — and this is just a hypothesis — to have steady conversations with our troops about the many critical ways that citizens serve their country and find purpose in American life outside of military service.
“Thank you for your service.” What if, in return, we veterans found ways to acknowledge the service of the small-business owner who is indeed the strength of America? Or the service of the inner-city teacher whose job it is to turn children into contributing citizens? Or the service of the single mom behind the cash register who is working two jobs?
Yes, among other absences, I left four young sons for two years straight to serve in Afghanistan, and it was wrenching for my husband and me. My hardship was much less than others and more than some. But most of us volunteer not just out of devotion to country, but because we love the life the military offers. I would not have traded places with that cashier.
To be clear, I am not saying the military intends to drive security policy. Nor is it the source of the evident distance that has formed between itself and the rest of society. But I am saying that we have a part to play in enabling the better conversations that are needed to bridge it.
We have an obligation to temper our self-love in keeping with the service so many Americans thank us for. One place to begin is by carefully crafting our responses in the face of the public’s adoration. When we are thanked for our service, let us answer: It was my privilege.
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