The event was a Wall Street gala that raised millions of dollars for homeless veterans in New York City.
Kid Rock sang a ballad about helplessness, frustration and loss. On cue, several hundred soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines strode into position around him. The black-tie crowd rose to its feet and cheered.
“The servicemen and women were regarded as heroes,” said David Saltzman, who organized the spring fundraiser.
A senior military officer at the gala, also attended by the Joint Chiefs then-chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, saw the troops’ role differently.
“They were rolled out like some sort of orphan kid,” the officer wrote in an e-mail. “I’m sure the organizers meant well. I know they did. But it wasn’t respect, really. It was pity.”
The starkly conflicting impressions illustrate the uneasy relationship that has taken hold between the military and an often distant, sometimes adoring American public.
The troops are lavished with praise for their sacrifices. But the praise comes with a price, service members say. The public increasingly acts as if it feels sorry for those in uniform.
“We aren’t victims at all,” said Brig. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, who commanded troops in Iraq and will soon leave for Afghanistan. “But it seems that the only way that some can be supportive is to cast us in the role of hapless souls.”
The topic is a sensitive one for military leaders, who do not want to appear ungrateful or at odds with the public they serve. They also realize that the anger that returning troops faced in the latter years of the Vietnam War was far worse.
As a result, most of the conversations about pity take place quietly and privately among combat veterans. After his two sons returned from combat tours with the Marines, retired Col. Mark Cancian warned them that people outside the military would view their service from two perspectives.
Some would look at them with a sense of awe because they faced down insurgents and traveled to exotic places. Others would wonder whether there was an “angry, violent veteran beneath the surface,” said Cancian, who fought in Iraq and returned to a senior government job in Washington.
During his job search, he said, he sensed that some interviewers had subtly inquired whether he would be able to hold up under the strain of a demanding Washington job immediately after his combat tour.
“When you talk about your service, you need to counter the negative impressions,” Cancian recalled telling his sons.
The military’s unease springs, in part, from American indifference to the wars. Battlefield achievements are rarely singled out for praise by a country that has little familiarity with the military and sees little direct benefit from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“We, as a nation, no longer value military heroism in ways that were entirely common in World War II,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Instead, praise from politicians and the public focuses largely on the depth of a service member’s suffering. Troops are recognized for the number of tours they have endured, the number of friends they have lost or the extent of their injuries.
The heavy focus on sacrifice can feel a lot like pity. In August, when Afghan insurgents shot down a helicopter, killing 30 U.S. troops, Gen. James N. Mattis, who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, reacted stoically to the sudden outpouring of emotion and regret from the public.
“We grieve for our lost comrades and especially for their families, yet we also remember that the lads were doing what they wanted to be doing and knew what they were about,” he told a reporter. “This loss will only make the rest of us more determined, something that may be difficult for those who aren’t in the military to understand.”
Lower-ranking officers feel a similar frustration. “America has unwittingly accepted the idea that its warriors are victims,” Lt. Col. John Morris, a chaplain for the Minnesota Army National Guard, told the Rotary Club of St. Paul in August.
Morris visited the Rotary Club to encourage business leaders to offer internships to veterans who face an unemployment rate that is almost twice the state average. “Why are we unemployed, after we have done one of the greatest things in our lives, and that is serve our nation in combat?” he asked. “I think it is because America has bought into the notion that we might be damaged goods.”
Portrayals of veterans in earlier conflicts, such as World War II, did not shy away from depicting troops’ mental and physical wounds. The 1946 movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which set box office records and won seven Oscars, tells the story of three veterans’ postwar struggles. “The movie is quite brutal,” said Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at the U.S. Military Academy. The troops — two soldiers and a sailor — deal with alcoholism, nightmares, anger and poor employment prospects.
The men, however, reap benefits from their combat trauma. Their life-and-death experiences give them confidence, optimism and a moral clarity that civilians lack. When the sailor, who has lost his arms, is pitied by a customer at a soda fountain, another veteran intervenes and slugs the pitier.
The depiction of the veterans was influenced by the outcome of the war. The United States’ triumph over fascism and its emergence as a global power fostered a belief that the troops’ best years and the nation’s best years were still ahead.
The divisive Vietnam War shifted the frame. The American public vented its frustration with the losing war on front-line troops, who were often portrayed as troubled, violent and angry.
More recently, collective guilt over the reception Vietnam veterans received has led both Republicans and Democrats to press the entertainment industry to do more to extol returning troops. Two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Karl Rove, then a senior adviser to President George W. Bush, traveled to Hollywood to encourage film executives to highlight the heroism of U.S. armed forces.
Ten years later, first lady Michelle Obama followed in Rove’s footsteps and exhorted Hollywood to make movies and television shows that will give the public a fuller understanding of military families. “I want the conversation to be different,” Obama told film industry executives this summer. “This is about making sure that these families feel like everyone in the country understands their sacrifices, appreciates them, and that we’re all doing our part to step up.”
Both parties have struggled to articulate what the public should do to show their support. “I put some of the blame on the Bush administration,” said Peter Feaver, who served on Bush’s National Security Council. “We were unable to come up with symbolic ways to involve the American public in the wars.”
The private sector has tried to express thanks through big giveaways. As part of a nationwide fundraiser, Miller Brewing Co. encouraged customers to mail in bottle caps from their beers over the summer. The brewer promised to donate 10 cents for each cap to a fund that would buy ballgame and concert tickets for the troops.
The Applebee’s restaurant chain thanked current and former service members last week by serving them 1 million free meals on Veterans Day.
Troops who eat out in uniform are routinely treated to free food by fellow diners. Lt. Col. Mark Weber joked that he recently “scored a twofer” while dining out in uniform. Two sets of anonymous donors picked up his $20 lunch tab. Weber used the extra cash to leave a giant tip.
“It’s kind of bizarre,” said Weber, who has a master’s degree from Georgetown University. “People want to help, but they don’t know how. They feel powerless.”
To some soldiers, who are better-paid and -educated than many Americans, the charity can strike the wrong chord. The giveaways can seem like acts of atonement, designed to make up for many Americans’ indifference to the wars and their reluctance to serve.
“Don’t thank me for my service, don’t give me 5 percent off my Starbucks, don’t worry about yellow ribbons,” Lt. Col. Michael Jason, a battalion commander at Fort Stewart, Ga., wrote on his Facebook page on Memorial Day. “Do me this one favor: tell your children that there is another calling out there. . . . Talk to your kids about serving their country and their fellow citizens.”