“Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner?” President Trump mused last month.
With that conjecture about the leadership of Admiral William McRaven, whom he succinctly dismissed as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and “Obama backer,” Trump provoked yet another scandal about presidential comportment. Of course, it’s hardly news that Trump criticized someone seemingly unassailable; indeed, his swipe at Chief Justice John Roberts three days later largely displaced the McRaven story.
But like Trump’s insistence that the late Sen. John McCain was “not a war hero,” his criticism of McRaven rankled in a newsworthy way because it grated against our sense that military personnel ought to be publicly venerated. The ritual of saying thank you to the troops is now an established, almost demanded, response to the pervasive notion that military personnel are the best among us, frequently couched as a repayment of our perceived collective debts for their sacrifice.
But singling out military personnel for such acknowledgments actually comes at the expense of meaningfully recognizing their service. By taking the easy way out, offering accolades instead of the concrete support they need or careful thought about the human costs of U.S. foreign policy, we may actually be putting our troops at greater risk. Because adoration for the troops has become so central to American militarism (the idea that war is necessary, inevitable, even beneficial), participating in these rituals may, in fact, cement the beliefs that inspire the United States to send its military personnel to war.
The expectation that politicians and ordinary citizens alike express their unwavering support for the troops is relatively new. Although our government has provided compensation for injured veterans since before the Revolutionary War, it has often doled out these benefits begrudgingly.
During the Civil War, the government established a veterans’ pension, and the years after the war were marked by an upwelling of citizen gratitude for the massive conscript army credited with preserving the Union. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln implored the nation to “strive on…to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphans.” This pledge later became the foundation for the mission statement of the Veterans Administration.
Yet by the end of the 19th century, animosity toward people with disabilities contributed to the social marginalization of injured veterans. Indeed, over time, the initial good will toward veterans morphed into resentment about the special treatment they seemed to be receiving from the state. In public discourse, veterans were often scorned for laziness, criminality and malingering unemployment, a characterization that persisted into the era of World War I.
In October 1920, as New York voters considered a state bond that would pay a bonus to veterans, Henry Stimson — Secretary of War under William Howard Taft and again under Franklin Roosevelt, and himself a World War I veteran — wrote a piece in the New York Times warning that this bonus would “inevitably teach the service men to lean upon the State and nation.” Although the bond issue passed handily, the nationwide push toward rehabilitation for injured veterans was motivated by a concern that they become productive — gainfully employable — members of society, not any sense that the nation owed them a debt of gratitude.
In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, thousands of jobless World War I veterans converged on Washington to demand immediate payment of service bonuses they were scheduled to receive in 1945. In an attempt to repulse the “Bonus Army,” the Hoover administration called in the city police.
After this provoked a riot in which two protesters were shot and killed, Hoover dispatched an Army unit equipped with tanks and tear gas that ultimately dispersed the men.
Hoover’s successor, Franklin Roosevelt, took a gentler approach to veteran activists, even as, in 1933, he gave a speech that would be virtually unthinkable today: insisting that veterans, even disabled veterans, were not entitled to any special benefits. In 1944, Roosevelt — perhaps mindful that the nation could ill afford a return to the mass discontent and unemployment that sparked the Bonus March — signed the GI Bill. Notably, however, even this seminal legislation spawned controversy in both houses of Congress.
The GI Bill reflected how, by and large, World War II veterans received a heroes’ welcome, supported tangibly with state resources. Yet this treatment of veterans was anomalous in 20th-century American wars and did not last. Sharply divided public opinion about the Vietnam War begot conflicting opinions about the personnel who fought it, with many veterans stung by the sense that they returned home to a hostile public and a government disinterested in their needs.
The end of the draft in 1973 and subsequent transition to an all-volunteer force, however, changed the meaning of enlistment, transforming the act into the utmost symbol of patriotism and willing self-sacrifice. Moreover, the belief that an indifferent or even antagonistic civilian population exacerbated the trauma of Vietnam veterans became a cautionary tale about how military personnel ought to be treated.
The newfound option for most Americans to avoid military service seemingly endowed them with a new responsibility: expressing gratitude toward military personnel who enlisted so that they didn't have to. This resulted in a crucial transformation: the choice not to enlist became entirely unremarkable — until a civilian criticized U.S. military action, the military or someone in it, at which point their civilian status instantly delegitimized their argument. By the time the Gulf War began, rhetorically supporting the troops became a political imperative, and after September 11, it became the only viable platform, regardless of one’s position on our subsequent wars.
This historical transformation manifested itself in the two most prominent reactions to Trump’s criticism of McRaven: professions of gratitude for the admiral and criticism of Trump’s lack of military service. Even many Republican leaders made clear their respect for McRaven, though they dared not criticize the president directly. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) exemplified this, tweeting: “I don’t know if Adm. William McRaven shares my political views or not. But I do know that few Americans have sacrificed or risked more than he has to protect America & the freedoms we enjoy. His military career exemplified honor & excellence. I am grateful for his service.”
Many of the mainstream news stories about Trump’s comments cited the five draft deferments that the president received during Vietnam. The stories often referenced this information without elaboration, as if its meaning and relevance were self-evident: Trump was a coward who had no right to criticize McRaven, because McRaven served and he had not.
But there is something specious about this popular reverence for the military. While the vast majority of Americans view all branches of the military favorably, they have little interest in enlisting. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations revealed that only 0.5 percent of the population (1.29 million people) are active-duty military, down from roughly 1 percent (2.2 million) in 1973. With the exception of a small uptick after September 11, the size of the active duty-military has been steadily decreasing for the last 45 years, and this year the Army fell short of its recruiting goal of 80,000 new enlistees.
The disconnect between our regard for the military and our disinterest (my own included) in actually serving deepens the already sharp division between civilian and military populations. Paradoxically, venerating military personnel, even with good intentions, may exacerbate it further. Setting military personnel apart as special and glorifying their combat experiences makes it easier to ignore the costs of war and the deeply uneven ways that they are distributed, both domestically and abroad. Instead of this reckoning, civilians who shoulder few of those burdens can feel as if they've contributed, merely by professing their support and gratitude to the troops.
In this way, it becomes easier and easier to consent to militarism and so to guarantee that the same people will be called on to fight again and again. At the same time, the slow-motion crisis at the VA, the recent spike in suicides among young veterans, the ongoing epidemic of untreated mental health issues among military personnel and the financial hardships that many military families encounter all reveal the shallowness of the gratitude that we are compelled to profess. Chastising the president for yet another boorish attack does nothing to solve these problems. Instead, we’d be far better off questioning our own accountability for the suffering of military personnel, which mandatory platitudes will never alleviate.