Event: Giving Veterans More than “Thanks" (Sunday, May 29, 2022)
Why Honoring Veterans Requires Understanding their Service and Taking Responsibility for Sending them to War
On Sunday, May 29, I will deliver a talk titled, “Giving Veterans More than “Thanks”: Why Honoring Veterans Requires Understanding their Service and Taking Responsibility for Sending them to War” before the the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. Augustine in St. Augustine, Florida. The program begins at 10:00am and is open to the public.
Representations of Hollywood movies, professional sports leagues, and the wider popular culture distort the public’s understanding of veterans’ experiences. Drawing in part on insights garnered from dialogue with veterans in the classroom, I argue that flippant and perfunctory affirmation of and “thanks” for military service takes too much for granted and is no substitute for genuine consideration of the harms of war. To honor veterans, particularly combat veterans, we need to take time to understand the moral complexities of their service and taking responsibility for electing leaders who send them to war, in the first place.
The following is an excerpt of the remarks I will deliver for the May 29th 2022 program for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. Augustine.
In the Fall of 2021, I entered my small “Introduction to Humanities” class and asked students to take 7-minutes to silently reflect upon and answer the following questions:
What do people mean when they tell veterans and current members of the military, “Thank you for your service?”
Is the message usually delivered meaningfully?
If you are a veteran, do you feel that this “thanks for your service” is usually said with authenticity, or is it usually said, superficially? Do you think people care or understand the ‘service’ they are thanking you for?
The class session that day was devoted to exploring the meaning and function of culture. Culture is that living repository of thought, belief, and often ritualized practice that shapes and defines much of our lives. The humanities help us critically evaluate culture. In doing so they help us become active participants in culture rather than passive recipients and promulgators of unquestioned beliefs, values, and practices. We also learn something about the different ways human beings around the world today, and in the past, have thought, believed, and lived.
One of the powers of popular culture is that it can render an idea or behavior so ordinary that it is invisibilized: taken as a given and unquestioned. We are perfectly capable of inauthentically parroting a popular cultural expression or ritual without considering its genuine meaning, implications, or whether or not we sincerely relate to it in the first place. It’s just something we do.
On most days I would have asked students to reflect on the meaning of saying something like “bless you” after a person sneezes. Whenever I get the chance, however, I try to relate the subject and ideas I am teaching to the human beings in the classroom. And I knew that there were a couple of veterans in this particular class. They had shared this background with me and their colleagues in their class introduction videos. I figured the question of the meaning and sincerity of our thanking veterans for their service might provoke dialogue and debate. The spontaneous responses that followed—particularly the responses from the sole combat veteran in the classroom—inspired a deeper awareness of the contradictions between the lived experiences of our veterans and our popular culture’s simplistic celebration of war and military service.
“I don’t even like to say I’m a combat veteran. I don’t even like to say I’m a veteran.”
“I don’t even like to say I’m a combat veteran. I don’t even like to say I’m a veteran.” These were the words of the sole combat veteran of the class. Given our nation’s near universal adulation for the military and veterans this may seem like a strange reaction. Why wouldn’t he proudly claim his veteran and combat veteran status? Aren’t our veterans routinely described as bonified “heroes”? His answer boiled down to this: he wasn’t convinced most people really wanted or cared enough to understand the complexities of his military experience. As he spoke two more hands in our small class darted up.
The next student said he understood why his colleague didn’t like identifying as a combat veteran. He explained that his brother, who was serving in the military at the time, disliked the empty flatteries soldiers are often showered in. The praise didn’t comport with the traumatizing conditions and the moral ambiguities that characterized his experience. How could they when, according to the civilian brother, some of what he was asked to do as a soldier felt wrong.
A third student explained that she understood what her classmates were talking about. She said her stepfather, who fought in the Vietnam war, didn’t like talking about his experience in the military. She sees the pain and discomfort in his eyes when people ask insensitive questions like, “So, did you kill anybody over there?” “How many did you kill?” Missing from such questions is the basic awareness that killing another person is always a traumatizing experience to a healthy and humane person.
This is not to say that all soldiers share such feelings. Two of the veterans in the class spoke more favorably about their experience in the military. Both men were proud to identify as veterans. It’s also worth noting that neither had seen combat, reminding us that not all veterans have the same military experience and not all veterans assess their experiences the same. To this point, a veteran from a different class, during the same semester, wrote about his struggle with alcoholism in the wake of his service. “As a medic, and through my military service, I have seen awful things,” the student wrote. “In order for me to get sober and remain that way, I had to address some demons that were very deep inside, that I had intentionally buried for the sole purpose of never being found.”
Being reflective and honest we have to admit that some of the “thanks” given to veterans are empty gestures—perfunctory platitudes. As veteran and veteran studies scholar, Eric Hodges, pointed out in his 2013 Ted Talk (see video below), empty praise without genuine consideration of what it means to be a veteran can contribute to soldiers feeling even greater alienation in civilian life. For there to be genuine meaning in our thanks there must be some depth of understanding. Veteran Jake Wood writes,
“The health of our all-volunteer force rests on our nation's ability to understand what life in the military and at war entails. A poor understanding leads to poor policy decisions—both during peace and during war.”
Pursuing a genuine understanding of war would force us to deal with moral complexities and civic responsibilities many of us have grown accustomed to pushing to the side. Taking this step requires us to do more than “thank” veterans; it requires us to attentively and empathetically talk with them about their experience. When it comes to matters of war and peace, we should exchange pleasantries for genuine listening and conversation. And we should never lose sight of the fact that we are ultimately civically responsible for sending our men and women in uniform into combat. This responsibility should never be taken lightly or allowed to drift too far from our minds as we carry out our duty as citizens in a free and democratic society.
If you found this post interesting, please share it with others and like it by clicking the heart icon. And be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already.
Dr. Nall delivers energetic live presentations and engaging workshops on the subjects featured in Humanities in Revolt. Those interested in booking a workshop or talk can get in touch through Facebook or by leaving a comment.
Subscribers will receive periodic posts pertaining to the broad domain of humanistic inquiry, from the insights of great thinkers throughout human history, the meaning and importance of critical thinking and ethics, the underappreciated poetry in everyday existence, to contemporary cultural analysis and the ongoing struggle to combat human oppression and violence. You will also have the opportunity to engage the author and our online community in dialogue about each post.
Why get a paid subscription?
Paid subscriptions directly support Dr. Jeffrey Nall’s efforts to produce and share publicly accessible independent scholarship and analysis. Supporting donations can also be made through PayPal. For more about my work go to JeffreyNall.com and find me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.