Anecdotally, there has been an explosion of Veteran’s Day events over the past few years. Applebee’s. Chili’s. Outback. McCormick &Schmick’s. Uno Chicago Grill. Golden Corral. Krispy Kreme, Subway, Texas Roadhouse, Hooters (for the wings, of course). As a verteran, I am honestly appreciative of these efforts. They also make me uncomfortable. Why is there so much “appreciation” all of a sudden? A big reason is, of course, nine years of continuous war, the longest in U.S. history. (By other metrics, like total casualties or depending on when you “start” the Vietnam War, Afghanistan ranks anywhere from second to well down the list.) I think another large factor is much of America’s guilt complex in relation to the military- particularly prevalent among Baby Boomers.
This week, I had an appointment with a new doctor. Frankly, he was a bit of a chatty cathy. (which I found a little disturbing- isn’t his time too expensive to be spent chewing the fat with some hemochromotosis patient? I mean, people were literally dying of cancer in the lobby, and he was diagramming bodily iron absorption on a white board for me.) He really turned on the one-way conversation faucet, though, when he found out I was in the military. “I never served,” he started off, “but my father did.” He then when on to say that he did have a high number in the draft, though. “Almost went to Vietnam!” Um, but you didn’t. And anyone that’s ever mentioned their draft number to me but didn’t actually get drafted always had a suspiciously high number not to be called up.
I think Baby Boomers have a weird guilt associated with the military. Their parents fought and won World War II; they watched Vietnam from their living rooms; now their children are fighting two wars which, not incidentally, Baby Boomers got us into. For a full twenty year span, we will have had three Baby Boomer presidents who did not serve in the military. (W’s association with a uniformed weekend flying club simply does not count.) Not only did the Baby Boomers not serve, but they have never had to make the sacrifices that those at home had to during most wars, particularly WWII. No rationing, no industrial run-up- hell, even gas prices didn’t go up while we were at war in the Middle East. They closest non-military Baby Boomers may have come to personal sacrifice might be the draft during Vietnam, but even that is tinged with guilt. The passivity of sleepless nights spent fearing “Will my number get called?” doesn’t really match up well with rationing and victory gardens.
This guilt has a number of negative consequences. First, Baby Boomers have a reflexive rah-rah response to any mention of “the troops.” Support Our Troops! Yellow Ribbon Bumper Magnets for all! (Which is why I ignore yellow ribbon magnets in favor of true service flags.) Look, I support the troops. I know what it is to be deployed, and I know what it means to receive care packages or emails. The problem is that this reflexive rah-rah becomes a shield wielded by hawks in favor of expansionist policies. Withdrawal of support for a military action, which may be predicated on excellent, rational thought, is quickly painted as a withdrawal of support for service members. (As if service members are kissing the feet of those in soft suits eager to send them overseas.) Baby Boomers shut down after this line of attack. (See: Congress, 2002; for the antitheses, see: the retired generals who actually were actually critical of the military during Obama’s Afghanistan policy debates. [Note: how angry did I get when pundits derided Obama for “taking too long” in making some key Afghanistan decisions? Maybe if we had taken longer with some other decisions things might be a bit easier now.]) The self-imposed nationalism based on guilty consciences of Baby Boomers makes them ineffectual in providing a critical eye to foreign policy in general and military policy in particular. War hawk jingoists too often get a free ride.
Another negative consequence of guilty Boomer souls, particularly after 9/11, is the unimpeded growth of the intel-industrial complex. As America’s economy has become more “knowledge” based (read: more desk workers, less manufacturing), so has the Eisenhowerian military-industrial complex become more focused on the intelligence sector. Over the past twelve years, spending on the intelligence sector has increased threefold. The Washington Post did a whole series on its growth. Baby Boomers employed in this industry, those feeding it the money, and especially those profiting off of it, feel entitled to do so. There is very much an attitude of, “Well, I’m supporting the [quote-unquote] warfighter, so this isn’t bilking the American taxpayer.” Except, oftentimes, it is. Little critical eye is applied to the whole process. Baby Boomers are said to be mistrustful of government, but their regrettable over-regard for the military has them turn a blind eye to some serious excesses.
Understand- I am not anti-Yellow Ribbon and want people to thank a vet. Passive patriotism, however, is not an excuse for blindly allowing the military or pro-defense hawks to get a free pass. Defense spending should be cut. Generals should be answerable to their civilian leaders. Armed conflict should not be a primary response except in critical situations. Those who question defense policy should not told, “You don’t support our troops!” The worst thing you can do for our troops is pour money into useless programs while sending them gallivanting all over the globe with nary a thought for long-term repercussions.
Veterans deserve respect, and they certainly enjoy free meals. The last conscripts in the U.S. military reported for duty in 1973. For the past thirty-seven years, America has fought three wars, been engaged in numerous conflicts, and sent troops to too many hotspots to count, all the while maintaining continuous military presence across the globe- with an all-volunteer force. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’d be willing to believe this is a unique accomplishment in history. Few forces have ever been all-volunteer, and certainly none that were accomplished so much. This does not mean, however, that the civilians were depend on to lead this country and maintain a critical eye on policy (this means you, politicians, journalists, and citizens) should allow themselves to bullied into making decisions based on fear of seeming unpatriotic. The best thing you can do for a veteran? Don’t be a sunshine patriot. Serve your country by making reasoned decisions. Avoid polemics. Do not abdicate the responsibility of placing a critical eye on our country’s actions overseas and then hide behind a yellow ribbon.