When I was a grunt in the military, I remember our reaction to the now still ubiquitous “Thank you for your service” (TYFYS). It speaks to the element of Sparta that I was a part of that few people around me were not against the war and in the particular unit I was in, to include myself, many were for it. I won’t bother with the anthropological explanation for this phenomena, but I do want to paint the background to our reactions.
Amongst ourselves we would mock the TYFYS types, and if we didn’t analyze it beyond the usual blunt gallows humor, we sensed how shallow the term was and mocked it mercilessly. I know throughout my training and time in, a siege-mentality was fostered whereby we expected that civilians wouldn’t care and may actively be against us—every protest against war was to be taken personally. So, even if we did mock the TYFYS, we agreed that it was better than the apocryphal story of being spit upon.
That we saw things in such a binary manner, speaks to our mindset back then—or at least of mine. And even if TYFYS was synonymous with a shallow knee-jerk reaction—or was it concern signaling?—none of us ever reacted with anything but politeness. Though, to be honest, what was expected of us? Were we to say “you’re welcome” or “think nothing of it?” or perhaps some other socially-appropriate reaction for “thank you”?
That we reacted to it with politeness was rarely honest, but it was fitting for what the phrase was: words that immediately put one in the uncomfortable position of being owed by the speaker. And yet not owed because it’s usually a way to create a rift and not converse about anything else because it’s usually just that: I’ve rarely had follow up questions or discussions about what such “service” entails, and usually less so about myself.
I suppose these interactions might speak to the general civilian-veteran rift or perhaps just the general state of stranger on stranger interactions in our atomized society of ours. Nevertheless, it certainly speaks to the silence the phrase buys—from both sides. It leaves the need for a public discussion about these wars unattended. Now, I understand that the phrase is weighted so that it doesn’t come down on either side of the answer to whether we should go to war—support the troops, and don’t blame them for what the policymakers have chosen—but it ultimately does side with saying nothing and saying nothing always sides with the status quo. This currently means siding with endless war.
Now, I’m not going to get into that argument in this piece, but I will note that we do need a national conversation about why we have an endless war, why, at this point of the republic’s life are we in the longest war yet, and against the smallest enemy yet—and this will require more than the usual fear-mongering followed by silence. It will mean that civilians, more than ever, should dare to ask questions of their veterans they keep carelessly sending overseas, even if some (on either side) will not be enthusiastic about it.
And veterans, to include myself, need to engage as well. The fact is, whether we like it or not, veterans are the face of the war and the mask behind which our leaders continually hide. That silence bought by the phrase TYFYS is desired by our leaders because it places them and their decisions under less scrutiny. And this doesn’t have to be some nefarious top-down conspiracy, it’s simply symptomatic of where we find ourselves.
Of course, there have been some movements away from the silence. Some veterans say that they reply to TYFYS with “I didn’t serve, I was used.” A statement which at least speaks of a certain worldview. Sometimes this is followed by a conversation about that worldview. And I know this reveals what my worldview is: very similar to that of our founding fathers in that we shouldn’t go overseas in search of monsters. This means the rift between veterans and civilians does need to be tightened—no more claiming some unfathomable level of understanding beyond any civilians’ capabilities—and a proper conversation needs to come about. The health of our republic depends on it.
And I understand that a veteran and civilian talking might not seem like a big deal, and may even border on romanticism, but it’s a first step to actually honoring veterans in a less superficial manner and talking about foreign policy in less revered tones, because otherwise what veterans do will continue to be used as a shield for those profiting from these wars.