Another Veterans Day looms, or, judging by my local paper, Veteran’s Week. It won’t be long before we start decorating our front yards with little plastic tanks. People are falling all over themselves thanking anyone they see in uniform for their service. I’m sure by the end of the week, many a doorman will have been thanked by mistake. Although in the case of doormen, the gratitude is probably warmly appreciated.
Every once in a while, someone finds out I served in the military, and thanks me profusely. You might think it’s strange, but I find this irritating. In the first place, I was in the Air Force. As the always insightful (not to say inciteful) Jim Wright has noted, the Air Force is known for the finest battle-tested high tech espresso machines in any of the armed forces worldwide. In the second place, although I was in during the Vietnam war, I was never sent there; I served in Okinawa and Frankfurt, Germany, not exactly hazardous duty, unless you consider the night life out the back gate. The most heroic thing I ever did was show up at morning Commander’s Call with a hellacious hangover. In one particular case, this was, in fact, cured, when the CO decided we all needed to know what hashish smelled like, the better to turn each other in. The First Sergeant stuck about gram of it on the end of a pin, lit it, and passed it around for us to sniff.
It never made it past the second row, and when questioned, no one seemed to know where it had gone. Those of us in the first two rows especially.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. As a member of Prime Beef, an elite group of engineers, I participated in several NATO exercises; in particular, I recall one near Thessaloniki, Greece. We arrived and within a few hours had dug our latrines and set up our tents and command post, along with the simulated combat airstrip that was our mission. Since no actual aircraft were going to land on it, we were essentially done until the exercise was over. Under the circumstances, my commander entrusted me with the most important job that remained unfinished: taking a new 5 gallon jerry can into town, and getting it filled with cheap wine.
This was the late 60s, of course, and I’m sure things are more professional now, but I’m willing to bet these stories would not look all that unfamiliar to today’s troops..
My point here is that this is a far more typical military service experience than the Sgt. Rock stuff people imagine. The usually quoted ratio for support personnel to actual fighters is 9:1. That means 90% of us veterans did no significant fighting; for those stationed in combat zones the ratio probably goes down to about 6 or 7:1, but there are no hard figures to base this on. To be sure, things have changed, and the line between combat and support troops has gotten fuzzier, but not as much as you would think. Those truck drivers you hear about are certainly in harm’s way, but keep in mind that attacking supply lines has been a key military tactic at least since Alexander the Great.
The biggest difference, and a significant one, is the way troops are deployed. Up until Vietnam, troops were in-country for the duration of hostilities. In Vietnam, it was 11-13 months and out; you pretty much had to volunteer to go back a second time. What makes things difficult nowadays is the recurring deployments, arguably more stressful than even the long duration single deployments in the world wars, especially with the increased use of reservists. That recurring shift of perspective is, in some ways, worse than continuous deployments of the past. Still, even in places like Afghanistan, most of that is non-combat, although the constant threat of IEDs, suicide bombings and the like certainly takes a toll.
So, why am I being such a curmudgeon about this? Don’t I think some thanks are deserved here? Well, yes and no.
Apart from the disquieting realization that most of those doing the thanking haven’t the slightest idea what they’re thanking us for, and the suspicion that they’re just happy they didn’t have to do anything for the society they live in, there are other very good reasons.
It’s undeniable that some percentage of veterans have, indeed, endured harrowing experiences. Some of them will suffer from the effects for the rest of their lives. But most will get over it rather quickly, and settle into the routines of civilian life with no visible effects. Some, in fact, will have behaved disgracefully, and deserve nothing. A very, very small percentage will have been genuine heroes, not for ideological, or even patriotic, reasons, but for the personal sacrifices they made in circumstances all but incomprehensible to the rest of us, and I include the majority of veterans.
It’s for this tiny group that I object to the indiscriminate expression of gratitude to everyone who has had any military service. And I guarantee that you will never hear any of these people trumpeting their military experience, or even talking about it. There’s a meme that makes the rounds of social media every now and then, which states something to the effect that anyone who has served in the military has voluntarily offered up his or her life for the good of the country. I seldom use the word bullshit, but it seems particularly appropriate here.