Please don't thank me for my "service." I was in the military, not the "Service." Service is doing something good. Service is what the person does who fixes your car. When the word "service" is applied to the military, it helps to justify violence as a method for conflict resolution. Like "defending our freedom," or "bringing democracy," the word "service" is used to lower the barriers of aggression. The military solution to conflict is death and destruction. That's not "service." Call it what it is - the military. If you have to hurt someone to solve a problem, you are the Problem.
- Arnold Stieber, US Army Veteran, 1970
I didn’t go to war so that my son could follow.
I didn’t go to war to be thanked for it.
And I certainly didn’t go to war so that I could be called a hero.
Last week, a reader on Facebook asked how I felt about exactly that, being thanked for my military service.
Specifically, I was asked if I agreed with Arnie Stieber, the Vietnam veteran quoted above.
And I don’t.
Stieber’s experience was not mine.
His time was not my time. His war was not my war. His military was not my military.
The United States and the US military have changed greatly since Vietnam – due in no small part to the efforts and activism of veterans like Arnold Stieber. While I don’t entirely agree with his position I don’t disagree with it either. I understand completely where he is coming from and I can sympathize with his point of view and I can unreservedly grant that he earned it.
He's entitled to his position, but his position is not mine.
I don't feel disrespected or diminished if my own service goes unacknowledged.
I don’t feel proud and heroic if it is.
I mostly don’t care if others acknowledge my veteran status or not.
Unlike Stieber and many of his fellows, I wasn’t compelled to serve. I had a choice, Stieber didn’t. War was my profession for more than two decades, I served as both enlisted and as an officer, I joined the military and stayed of my own volition – and that makes all the difference.
As I said in reply to the question, I don't advertise my military service but I don’t try to hide it either.
I served in peace and in war, I wish for the former and despise the latter.
Like Stieber, I have little use for those who glorify and promote war as a way to solve the world’s problems.
Unlike Stieber I pragmatically acknowledge that sometimes war is necessary.
I don't march in parades and I don't go to protests. I don’t wave the flag and I rarely attend reunions. I’m proud of my service, I treasure my experience, I miss the men and women I served with. I was damned good at what I did and there are days I wish I was still out there doing it – and there are days I’m damned glad I’m not.
No sane man prays for war.
No moral man hopes for death and destruction, not even for his enemies.
Nowadays I’m certain that my haircut and bearing broadcast my status to those paying attention - along with the fact that I often wear the ratty fading sweatshirts from my former commands and so it’s no secret that I’m a veteran. But I emphatically do not feel entitled to thanks from Americans for my military service – or whatever you call it, I’m not inclined to argue the semantics of it. I went of my own free will and for my own reasons, America owes me nothing for it. I’d like to think America will make good on what I was promised, but I don’t expect it – and more on that in just a minute.
I do not demand respect as my right nor gratitude for my service.
But if thanks are given, I will gladly accept them in the spirit offered and return the compliment. If a business offers me a military discount, I will gratefully accept it. If they don't, that's perfectly fine too. Choice, freedom to choose, the right to decide to offer thanks or not, well, that's what we were doing out there, defending that. At least that’s what I was doing, others can speak for themselves.
And if you believe in liberty, if you're willing to give your life for it, then you must acknowledge people will use that freedom however they please. Some will use it to thank you for your service.
Personally I think you're a bit of a shitheel as a human being if your response to a simple thank you is a political screed and a lecture on semantics, then again that's your right. As I said, I don’t speak for other veterans.
But me? As I said, I take thanks in the spirit offered and return the compliment, one citizen to another, and it bothers me not at all.
But I draw the line at hero.
In the same conversation, a commenter proclaimed all veterans “heroes.”
She gushed on and on with glassy-eyed effluvious enthusiasm about “sacrifice” and “patriotism” and a dozen other clichéd platitudes and ended her comment by saying that her eyes well up with tears whenever she sees a military member out in public wearing a uniform.
I asked her not to call me a hero, but I should have just walked away – and after she condescended to tell me what a “real” veteran is, I did because like Arnie Stieber, there are things I just cannot abide.
And hero worship is one of them.
We, most of us veterans, we’re not heroes.
I certainly am not. Oh, sure, I’ve got a box of decorations upstairs in the back of my closet, we all do. Maybe I have a few more decorations than most, a few less than others. Maybe someday long after I’m gone my son will find that box and wonder at those bits of fading cloth and tarnished metal. Maybe he’ll read the commendations and be proud of his old man, just as I once did. But goddamn it, I’d far rather have him boggle in horror at the idea of war, I’d far rather have war be so long forgotten that those decorations are nothing but curiosities of a primitive and violent history, one that his generation has long moved beyond.
I didn’t go to war so that my son could follow.
We are not Spartans.
We are not Romans.
We are not Nazis.
We are not some military society who worships war and glorifies battle as some great heroic ideal and spawns generations of warriors. In America, mothers don’t tell their sons and husbands to come home with their shields or carried upon them. Or a least they damned well shouldn’t.
We are a free people, we are Americans. For us there should be nothing glorious about war.
We should honor the soldier, certainly, but we should honor the peacemakers to a far greater degree.
As I’ve said here and elsewhere more times than I can count: war is a dirty horrible business and make no mistake about it. War should be the last resort, when all else has failed and the very safety of liberty is endangered.
War is hell. War is violent and terrible and immoral. Certainly there may be acts of heroism and valor in war, but there are also endless acts of craven cowardice and ignorant stupidity and wanton violence and vicious cruelty – just as in any other human endeavor. War should always be a last resort, embarked upon only under the most dire of necessity and not some goddamned glorious spectacle.
We go to war because we have to, and for no other reason.
While it’s certainly true that, as Orwell and Churchill both said, the nation sleeps snug in its bed only because rough men stand ready to do violence on its behalf, to paint us all as generic “heroes” leaches the word of meaning and power and diminishes those acts that truly are heroic and worthy of great respect.
But it’s much, much worse than that.
To paint all veterans as heroes, superior above other citizens, worthy of worship and compulsory respect, gives lie to the equality of democracy and makes such status enviable.
That, right there, is why Stolen Valor is such a thriving business.
That, right there, is why our society is a brim with military fakers and ersatz war heroes. They show up at every parade and hang out in front of the VA, they polish their stolen medals to a golden glow and tell stolen war stories replete with glorious battles that exist only in their minds, all with false aw shucks humility and grim steely-eyed false heroism.
And they lap it up, your wide eyed unquestioning admiration, because it feeds their empty souls.
These people are parasites, thriving on our mandatory respect and wide-eyed unconditional hero worship. They exist because of your admiration, without it they would wither and die. But the damage they do is limited and they are typically found out and shamed when their duplicity crosses that of a real veteran.
Far, far worse than the posers, this national hero worship compels the dull-witted and the small and mean to join up for all the wrong reasons.
There is little worse in the ranks, and nothing worse – absolutely nothing – in the officer corps, than those who want to be heroes.
We’ve all encountered them, those of us who served. The commanders and the lieutenants and the majors who practice their Medal of Honor acceptance speech in front of the shaving mirror each morning, the one that begins, “Thank you Mr. President, I’m sorry all my men were killed, but I’m grateful to accept this award on their behalf…” We’ve all served under the senior NCO who dreamed of a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and the tales of glory he would tell to the doe-eyed girls back home who would then coo over his manly scars and jump ready and eager into bed with a hero.
Those are the kind of people who get other soldiers killed.
They’re not there to defend the country, the oath means nothing to them, they crave only glory and the admiration of a grateful nation.
Worst of all, writ large, this idea makes war itself desirable, for only in such a crucible can heroism be forged.
And then war becomes the norm instead of the exception.
But it’s all a lie, for you see heroes are not people.
Heroes are symbols, objects to be worshiped and admired and fawned over.
And then forgotten when new ones come along.
Heroes don’t make mistakes. Heroes don’t die from friendly fire. Heroes don’t bomb a wedding or a school. Heroes don’t get PTSD. Heroes don’t come home broken. Heroes don’t wake up screaming covered in sweat, night after night. Heroes don’t need help. Heroes don’t end up on the street. Heroes don’t wonder where their next meal is coming from, or how they’ll pay the mortgage. Heroes don’t end up addicted to booze and drugs trying to cope with the pain. Heroes don’t mind that you look at them with uneasy fear, wondering if, when, they’re going to snap – heroes don’t snap.
And, after the war, heroes don’t need education or retraining or help buying a house or easy access to VA medical care. In fact, heroes, well, they don’t need any of those things you promised back when you were terrified and desperate for rough men to do violence on your behalf.
Heroes just need a parade and the easy thanks of a yellow magnet stuck on the back of your car.
Calling us heroes taints your thinking, it biases your viewpoint no differently than painting all veterans as “baby killers” did a generation ago.
Mostly we veterans are just people who came when called and did our best under terrible circumstances.
If you truly wish to honor those who put their own precious selves between home and war’s desolation, then you wouldn’t call them heroes.
Instead you’d make them obsolete.
I didn’t go to war so that my son could follow.
If you want to honor veterans, try living up to the promises you made when you called us to war. That would be a start. Make good on the medical care. Make good on the education. Make good on the support for our families. Pay up and pay up promptly. Hold your elected leaders to account and make them do it or throw the cowardly sons of bitches out of office when they won’t. That would be better than all the empty thanks and the parades and the yellow ribbons.
If you truly wish to honor all the men and women who have served this nation, who have given their lives, who stood ready to do violence in your name, then you would do your utmost to keep our children, indeed all the generations who follow, from having to make the same bitter sacrifice.
Wars are caused by unbridled hate, by intolerant fanaticism, by selfish idealism, by religious extremism, by hunger and poverty and inequality, by bigotry and greed and fear.
If you wish to honor the warrior, truly honor the warrior, then you would do those things which make war less likely.
You would elect leaders who don’t see military action as the first option, or even the second, or the third.
You would elect leaders of reason and judgment, those who are loudly and forcefully reluctant to waste the lives of their fellows and the treasury of their nation.
You would elect leaders who set the example of citizenship, who are willing to listen to each other, to compromise and work together for the good of us all, who don’t go around spewing hate and fear and glassy-eyed fanatical jingoism and simple-minded patriotism.
Yes, you build a strong and well equipped military, of course you do, for defense. You don’t go around finding excuses to use it all the goddamned time. You don’t throw more lives away for political posturing, for imagined slights, for profit, for pride.
More importantly you give equal or greater effort and resources towards those things that make war unnecessary.
You feed the hungry, you clothe the poor, you heal the sick, you employ the able, you educate the next generation, you pay your taxes, you stop looking at your neighbors as the enemy, you give back, you invest in the future, you dream of the stars, and you remember we’re all in this together.
If you want to honor veterans, then don’t call them heroes. That’s the easy way out.
If you want to honor veterans, then live up to the ideals they fought to defend.
I didn’t go to war so that my son could follow.
I went with the hope he would never have to.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
― Dwight D. Eisenhower, Soldier, General, President