In the summer of 1970, when I was 18 years old, I walked down to my local Army recruiting station and signed up for a three year hitch. I had some vague, noble notions of serving my country, other urges of moving from youth into manhood, the desire to vent an amorphous anger with three round bursts, but my main objective was to make my father (a world war II vet) proud. One thing that I never expected, asked for, nor wanted was public acclaim. I knew as well as anyone that soldiers returning home during this era of the Vietnam war were often reviled for participating in what was broadly seen as an unjust action.
Four and a half decades later, I saw a post on social media of a soldier holding a cardboard sign asking for viewers to “like this picture.” “We need your support,” it read. Following were thousands of comments, mostly of the “thank you” or “God bless you” for your service variety.
I have to admit the whole thing rubbed me the wrong way. I saw this as a lazy way to support the military from the comfort of your chair, and – as I wrote at the time – the equivalent of “yellow-ribbon bumper stickers without the need to get up and go to the garage.” Plus, if a member of the military needs social media bonus points to feel good about his job, it’s likely that he’s in the wrong profession.
The public’s reaction to this request (and other similar requests since) reveals the extent to which a nationalistic fever has swept the U.S. to idolize those who serve in the military even though the causes the military serves are no more just today than they were during the era of my military stint, simply more rooted in revenge.
And, as anybody who is familiar with the films of Bruce Willis knows, vengeance sells. After the attacks of 2001, the fever of supporting the military has grown to the point that now everybody who enters the armed services, whether for the desire to serve, the desire to perform sanctioned kills, or just because it’s an available job, is lavished praise as if each one were a hero.
They’re not heroes, at least not the majority. But that’s not to say they’re bad actors, either. I understand well how inexperience and underdeveloped impulses can propel a young person into military service. And even how the desire to grow and perform well in your chosen field can impel someone to stay in the military for many years.
But there’s nothing romantic nor particularly noble about serving in the military. There’s nothing romantic nor particularly noble about serving your country, period. These are professions, or career paths, like many others. I appreciate those who serve, and I know it can be a tough job, but I don’t see a need to treat each one as if they’re exceptional.
I appreciate those who take on a variety of jobs, from collecting the garbage to taking care of animals to performing life-saving surgeries. These too are functions of society that must be filled. The military is important and necessary, but so are many other things that we don’t feel the need to commend with such fervor.
If nothing else, this gratuitous and reflexive torrent of support for anyone involved in the military has demonstrated how easy it is to sway public opinion with emotional appeals. Violence comes to the homeland and the hardest hit victim is rationality. But fifteen years is enough; the emotional bomb has burst. It’s time to usher in a new age of reason.