On the day before Veterans Day, Grateful Nation author Ellen Moore offers commentary on a phrase many of us take for granted.
As many of us take the day off work for Veterans Day, we pause to honor former military members and often resort to the familiar phrase “Thank you for your service.” Yet the simple gesture of thanking soldiers for their service is not so simple.
In the years since 9/11 and the onset of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “thank you for your service” has become a ritualized phrase that is repeated in airports, schools, shopping centers, and movie theaters. On college campuses, for example, veteran support meetings routinely begin with civilian speakers thanking the student veterans for their service. When I began my research with veterans attending college, civilians working for the U.S. Army advised that I should introduce myself to veterans by thanking them for their service because it would facilitate communication. Because the phrase was so ubiquitous, instead of repeating it, I chose to ask veterans to describe how they feel when they hear the phrase “thank you for your service.” I got a range of answers from appreciation to active dislike, but many said that the phrase, coming from strangers who knew nothing about them beside their military status, seemed like a platitude; it seemed like something civilians thought they were supposed to say. Others were concerned that the phrase served as a way to avoid deeper discussions about the wars and about the effects on soldiers who are sent to fight them. As Jordan, a former Marine and veteran of the Iraq War told me: “For me the biggest problem is that the people of this country don’t understand what they’re asking [when they send soldiers into war]. They don’t understand what we’re doing. They want to be appreciative. They want to understand. I really believe that. They want to be thankful. They want to be supportive. But all of these things require being informed, being knowledgeable and not burying our heads in the sand when we get to the ugly truth.”
For Jordan the “ugly truth” involved sending young men and women into battle to harm or kill unknown others for reasons not always clear to them. Many suffer from what is now called moral injury resulting from having to carry out actions that conflict with their moral beliefs. During the three years I spent in and around veteran communities researching their experiences on college campuses, I found that when civilians, soldiers, or veterans criticized military policies or actions they were often labeled as not just anti-war, but anti-military or even anti-veteran. But my research found that dichotomous “pro or anti-war” labels cannot adequately describe diverse beliefs held by military members, veterans, and civilians about the military and the contemporary wars.
Daily life today in the United States is marked by a heightened sense of vulnerability and anxiety about national security. We are warned that enemies at home and abroad threaten U.S. jobs, families, and homes. This national insecurity problem has come with a built-in solution: militarized interventions in the form of expanded and instrumental use of deadly force by police, walled-off militarized border zones, drone warfare, and threats of nuclear strikes. Paradoxically, the heightened rhetoric of war is accompanied by a societal silence about the effects of war on soldiers as both victims and perpetrators of violence.
But we must talk about this—and veterans have a lot to say.
War veterans’ complex positions are often informed by what they call the “ground truth”– the lived reality of combat and military occupation. When someone knows this “ground truth”, they cannot reduce that experience to a simplistic choice between being a hero or a villain. However, in our efforts to honor veterans’ service, we can end up idealizing both war and warrior.
News stories and commercial ad campaigns featuring uniformed soldiers highlight heroism, loyalty to country, and sacrifice, but there are few public representations of the ambivalence and conflict that so many veterans shared with me. I found that some student veterans wanted to be acknowledged for their service while others just wanted to blend in on campus and be seen as ordinary students. Some veterans wanted to engage in conversations about the wars with civilian students, while others wanted to avoid discussions they feared would lead to unwelcome interrogations. This diversity highlights the need for more complex and targeted supports for student veterans. We must provide room for conversations involving political difference on college campuses and in veteran support settings.
We can honor military veterans by engaging in difficult conversations about war and peace, consent and dissent, social conformity and social difference, and about what it takes for a nation to be secure. Yet finding common ground across diverse worldviews is difficult since we live in a highly polarized ideological environment that seeps into discussions about military veterans and the current wars.
“Thank you for your service” and other societal conventions that require veterans and civilians to adopt an uncomplicated view of military service and the wars inhibit discussions that some veterans want and need for their own benefit and for the benefit of their fellow veterans. As I conducted the research for my book, I found that for many veterans, enforced silences and heroic narratives about the wars increased cognitive and emotional dissonance between their lived military experience and their return to civilian society.
Jordan and his fellow veterans deserve more than ritualized phrases, they deserve to be listened to and to have their experience understood. We can and should differentiate between support for veterans and support for the wars in which they fought.
Supporting thoughtful, deeply researched scholarship like Moore’s is what University Press Week is all about. The final day of University Press Week’s blog tour theme is Libraries and Librarians Helping Us All #LookItUP. University of Missouri Press provides a look into the ways the Special Collections archive and certain librarians helped both the press and the author with Lanford Wilson: Early Stories, Sketches, Poems. At University of Nebraska Press, director of Lincoln City Libraries, Pat Leach, will contribute a post. Next, the University Press of Florida will spotlight the Florida and the Caribbean Open Books Series, a collaboration between the press and and the UF George A. Smathers Libraries. An entry from University of Georgia Press demonstrates how libraries serve as bastions of facts and real information against the onslaught of Fake News. University of Alabama Press will also have a post. Read and share with the hashtags #ReadUP and #LookItUP and keep talking about the great work university presses do even after this week ends.