Mean It When You Say Thank You For Your Service

“Thank you for your service.” Whenever someone mentions, even in passing, having been in the military, this phrase usually follows quickly. People of all political or cultural leaning state it almost reflexively. At times, it reminds me of the automatic suggestion to have a “great day.” Like wishing someone a great day, I often wonder about the sincerity of such knee jerk expressions of appreciation.

Perhaps my cynicism is a product of my own experience. When I went on active duty in 1978, no one thanked me for being in the Army. In fact, the opposite reaction was more the norm. While still a young lieutenant with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), I got married in 1979. The wedding took place in Washington, D.C., the area where both families lived. One of the wedding guests, an acquaintance of my in-laws I had never met before, asked me what I did. I told him. The immediate – and plainly dismissive - reaction was something to the effect of “why would anyone do that if they didn’t have to.” Looking back, it’s not like this gentleman was just being particularly rude. It was the tenor of the times. The Vietnam war was still a fresh memory. Only a few years before, many affluent and educated families had gone to considerable (and often questionable) lengths to help their sons avoid military service. Returning veterans from that war had been spat upon, often literally. Considering it through that prism, it is not hard to see why someone back then might have considered volunteering to be in the Army as at best misguided, if not downright dumb.

By the time we got to the first Gulf War, general attitudes about military service were clearly changing dramatically. I will leave it to wiser minds to explain why that happened. Even through all the controversy about our long engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, the relative deference to and at least superficial respect for military service has seemingly persisted. While I sometimes find that a bit surprising, it is not a bad thing, obviously.

What is disturbing, however, is that huge swaths of our society – especially among the educated and affluent (people like lawyers, that is) - are frequently disconnected from those who serve or have served in the armed forces. They know no one who has been in the military. Maybe their grandfather served in World War II, but that is ancient history. As a Virginia lawyer, with some frequency I encounter people who really don’t know any veterans and are sometimes surprised to find that I am one. For this element of the population, military service would not even be much of a consideration, especially for their children. Part of me concludes that while my peers are certainly more polite than the man at my wedding, the underlying attitude might not be all that different.

For almost 50 years we have had an all-volunteer military. For the last 30 years we have been almost continuously engaged in military actions elsewhere in the world. I am not sure this is a good combination because far too much of our society is so completely disconnected from the hardships and sacrifices of those who are fighting these wars. One could argue that military service has been “subcontracted” to a less advantaged strata of our society. Perhaps their service is appreciated, but in reality, we don’t really need or want to know these people.

What I am describing above is elitism. Like many other societal vices, elitism will always be with us. It’s how we address and contain it that matters. The danger of elitism is that it leads to disdain. Among those who are disdained, it generates resentment. That is a treacherous cycle which is why elitism is so dangerous in any society. Frankly, what I see scares me and I wish I knew what should or could be done.

In the almost 250-year history of our country, millions of individuals have defended our nation by serving in the armed forces. Our nation is far from perfect – as recent events have clearly shown. However, let’s never forget that the freedoms we enjoy – and they are many and real – are the product of the sacrifices made by so many who came before us – and who still serve.

Thank people for their service. That’s a good thing, but it’s more important to try to know those you are thanking. It’s important to remind ourselves of the huge debt we owe. And it’s critical to remember that we are not somehow superior to those who have chosen to serve. In other words, you need to mean it when you say: “Thank you for your service.”