I cringe every time I hear the words. That’s okay, though, because so do the people they are directed to.
I’m talking about “Thank you for your service,” the nifty catchphrase that’s supposed to make sure Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – or War on Terror veterans, if you will – never feel the sting of rejection that Vietnam Veterans did.
I guess I missed the moment when that particular murmur became de rigeur. It must have been around the time “No worries” entered the U.S. lexicon.
But no worries; whenever and however it got started, I hereby declare it done.
Vets say they hate it because the people saying it don’t really mean it. People don’t really want to hear about their service; they just want to thank them and move on. I think people do mean it, but it doesn’t mean what they think it does.
Here’s what it’s supposed to mean: Regardless of what I think of the war you fought in, I appreciate the fact that you were willing to die to keep me safe.
Seems harmless enough. But it’s not. Here’s why:
- The purpose for which people fight does matter. The troops know it and so do we. A lot of us have participated in things we thought were a good idea which weren’t. But we don’t get “thanked” for them. They’re not “service.” A service has to benefit someone. Just thinking you were doing a good thing isn’t enough. These kids may have signed up to keep us safe, protect democracy, bring liberation to the Iraqis, protect Afghan women from the Taliban, but they didn’t do any of that. When we thank them for participating in a lie, we perpetuate and enlarge the lie. That’s called doubling down on our folly.
- The lie becomes its own raison d’etre. On The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore the other night, a vet explained that the troops are not thinking in geopolitical or global economic terms. The only thing they’re thinking about, he said, is protecting the guys on either side of them. Unfortunately, that’s another way of saying, “American lives are the only thing that matter.” That’s what got us into this mess in the first place, and it’s a problem when you’re sitting in someone else’s country with many tons of destructive equipment.
- The actual services people perform every day are not valued. Airline pilots don’t call out the names of teachers, nannies and nurses and thank them for their service. We don’t say thank you to the kids who got a job at McDonalds after school to help pay their families’ rent or the ones who are watching their little siblings while their parents are at work. We certainly don’t say it to the people organizing Black Lives Matter marches. The message to the returning troops is that nothing else they do, no matter how much more worthwhile it may actually be than whatever they did over there (which they’re right, we really don’t want to hear about), will ever earn them the appreciation we’re giving them for participating in a grand lie. And what it says to the young people who didn’t make that fatal mistake is that unless they’re willing to be violent, no sacrifice is worthy of our thanks.
- The people who are busy thanking the troops love to talk about “accountability.” Yet for the returnees, there is no accountability. It’s true that no one wants to hear about what they did, and it’s also true that no one makes them say what they did. Many of them did terrible things. No, it wasn’t their idea, but again, many of us join in bad schemes that weren’t our ideas. And for some of them, it was their idea. If one-third of women in the military are sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers, someone is doing all that assaulting. Ultimately, they know what they did. For those with a conscience, it will haunt them forever. For those without – well, that may come to haunt us forever.
So here are some things we could say to those returning vets in the airport, instead of “Thank you for your service.”
1) “I’m sorry you were lied to.” Okay, it’s not poetry, and it might not make them happy. It’s honest, and it might lead to a conversation.
2) “What are you going to do next?” It’s never too soon to remind them that they do have a future.
3) “How are you?” Simple, but to the point. You have to want to hear the answer.
4) “What would you like people to know about what happened there?” I’ve actually tried that one. It’s always interesting.
5) “Welcome home.”