So I thought a lot about what to write for Veteran’s Day. It’s hard, as someone who did not serve in the armed forces, to have much of anything to say about it without sounding trite and manufactured. I thought so long about it, actually, that my Veteran’s Day post did not make it up in time for Veteran’s Day, much to my chagrin. But, without further introductory digression, here goes…
My daughter’s 5th grade class wrote letters to our service members in Afghanistan and Iraq this week. Most had similar themes, all of which I would say are extremely important. They wrote about our gratitude for the sacrifice of our men and women in combat, and how much we appreciate their service in defense of our nation’s security and our liberty. They wrote about how they thought soldiers were admirable Americans who embodied many of our most cherished qualities. Some wrote about how strongly they wished to see our soldiers home safe and sound. Many wrote about how much they missed their own family members who were overseas in service to the United States.
And one little boy wrote, “I think you guys are awesome because you kill people.”
My kid was troubled by this, enough so that she felt it necessary to talk to me about it (and if you have kids in the pre-teen or teen years, you know how big a deal something has to be before they’ll talk to their, ugh, parents). She didn’t feel that her classmate really appreciated the overall point of the exercise, sure, but more than that, she was bothered by the concept of someone being admired for taking the lives of others, and the idea that some soldiers might actually only be interested in that aspect of their service.
It bothered me a little, too.
But as we talked, a realization came to me. Soldiers are people. And just like any group of people, there is no complete homogeneity when it comes to motives. There are soldiers who join because they genuinely desire to serve the nation, and to be a part of something greater than themselves. Some join because it is a family tradition. Some because it offers far greater opportunities than they would otherwise have access to. Some because they want to see the world. I’m pretty sure my brother’s main motivation for joining the Marines was because it was a great workout, and he wanted to prove he could hack it.
And there are probably those who join because they want to kill people.
After all, while the purpose of the military is to defend the nation (and our military is damned good at that, no question), the means by which they do it often require killing those who would otherwise do harm to the rest of us. There’s a reason that, whatever their specialized training (flying planes, intelligence work, engineering, etc.), one thing that all American service people learn is how to kill people. They’re better at it than anyone else in the world. It’s not something that the vast majority of our military wants to do, mind you. I’m not calling soldiers a bunch of bloodthirsty thugs, and I would never be so ignorant as to lump them all together like that. But there are times when they have to kill, and there are those who enjoy it. To say otherwise is to deny that they are human.
And here’s where I get to what I really want to say.
This Veteran’s Day, can we, who have not served in that capacity, finally stop fetishizing the military? Our men and women in uniform are, by and large, remarkable people, possessed of great courage and exemplary character. But at the end of the day they are people, and as a society we have turned them into the infallible heroes of ancient tales, immeasurably strong and completely above the failings of we mere mortals. Many in our culture have taken the leap from admiration to worship, and it’s unhealthy for all involved.
Think about what it means when we think of our military in this way.
Is it fair for us to hold people to such a standard? No question that the service they provide is noble, honorable, and definitely necessary. But these are still people, with human failings and human frailties. No matter how much we might like to think otherwise, our soldiers are not supermen. And when we look at them in this way we are much more likely to be cavalier about putting them in harm’s way. I’d say the job is probably hard enough without the rest of us thinking that they can handle anything and everything without any difficulty. Maybe some of the sabre-rattling we hear would die down if our leaders didn’t just assume the military is full of ultimate weapons. I suspect that both civilian and soldier alike would benefit from society being more apprehensive about going to war, don’t you?
When we view the uniform as a superhero’s costume, it becomes that much easier to say “suck it up and be a man (or woman, as the case may be).” It gets that much easier to deny that there may be catastrophic events in their lives, from which they may never fully recover. It’s that much easier to call PTSD sufferers weak and deny that they suffer at all. It’s that much easier to tell a soldier, who served in combat and is now out on medical discharge, that he couldn’t hack it in the real man’s military. It gets that much easier to deny benefits to veterans so that we can pay a fraction of a percent less in taxes. Failing to provide proper equipment weighs on the conscience so much less when we all know Superman is bulletproof anyway, right?
Not every soldier suffers such trauma. A great many look at their service as the experience that most positively affected their lives. Many go through their entire military career without anything causing them much in the way of emotional stress. Many look at their service as the very best time of their lives. Others take immense pride in performing their duties to the very best of anyone’s ability, let alone their own. Others are ashamed of having done it. Still others would say it was the worst thing they ever did. And some have been destroyed by it.
That’s the point. All of our soldiers are people. Beyond that, saying they are all anything is to deny them their humanity, and thus cease treating them like people. We really should stop doing that.
*To all who have served in the uniform of the United States, I am grateful to you for your service. In performing it, you honor all of us, and we honor you. Most importantly, I respect you as people. Happy Veteran’s Day.*