Armed Forces Day 2013: A Sober Reflection on a Nearly Invisible Holiday

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Today is Armed Forces Day and unfortunately most of the country will not notice unless they are attending a Baseball game where it is being observed or some special event on a base, national cemetery, monument or VFW hall. There are also protests, sometimes involving veterans. Last year at the NATO Summit in Chicago which coincided with Armed Forces Day a number of veterans protested by throwing away their Global War on Terror Medal. I actually have little problem with people protesting wars, even the current one so long as they direct their protest at the appropriate target, the politicians, pundits, think tank wonks and lobbyists that profit from war and not the soldiers that fight them.

Now there are a fair number of local celebrations to honor members of the Armed Forces across the country. As a career officer and son of a Vietnam veteran Navy Chief I appreciate those events and the people that put them together. Being a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, especially those that have taken the time to honor Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

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Likewise there are wonderful people that honor the Armed Forces every day. I think especially about the Maine Troop Greeters of Bangor Maine and the Pease Troop Greeters of New Hampshire. These men and women, many veterans themselves or related to veterans are amazing. They have been welcoming veterans back since early in the war and provide many services to the men and women of the Armed Forces that pass through Bangor Maine International Airport and the Portsmouth International Airport, the former Pease Air Force Base in Pease New Hampshire.  I have had the honor of passing through both locations, Bangor on more than one occasion. While I know that there are many others that do this they are in the minority in this country.

At any given time less than 1% of Americans are serving in all components of the military. For over 10 years we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other locations that we don’t like to talk about too much like Pakistan. However this has not been the effort of a nation at war. For the most part the war effort is that of a tiny percentage of the population.

As a nation we are disconnected from the military and the wars that have been going on for so long. The fact is that most Americans do not feel that they have a personal or vested interest in these wars because they have been insulated by political leaders of both parties from them. There is no draft, and no taxes were raised to fund the wars and the military is worn out while taking 50% of the cuts of the Congressional Sequester.

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We have now been at war continuously for nearly 12 years and truthfully there is no end in sight. In that time every single Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman volunteered for duty or reenlisted during this time period. Motives may have varied from individual to individual, but unlike the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam every single one volunteered to serve in time of war. I think that this makes the current generation of veterans quite unique.

Many of these volunteers served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither war was popular, except in the very beginning when casualties were low and victory appeared to be easy and quick. We like short wars. We left Iraq in December 2011 and Afghanistan is still going to be with us for God knows how long, even though we are drawing down or forces there.

In Afghanistan we followed the same path trod by the British and Soviets in trying to topple regimes and plant our respective versions of civilization in that land of brutal Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek warlords who war on each other as much as any foreign infidel.  It is a path that leads to heartbreak which ties down vast amounts of manpower without any significant strategic gain for the United States or NATO.  This even as war drums beat across the Middle East and nuclear armed Pakistan slips into political and social chaos and keeps a major supply route for the US and NATO to Afghanistan shut down.

The fact is that American and for that matter other NATO and coalition military personnel who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa or at sea are in the minority in all of our countries. Thus when a few of the few of these veterans choose to make a public spectacle of themselves by tossing a medal away they get cheered and lots of media attention. Some liberals applaud the medal throwers and conservatives vilify them without getting what is really going on. Both miss the tragic disconnection between the military and civilian society that is the result of public policy since the end of the Vietnam War. A relatively small professional military in comparison to the population is sent to fight wars while the bulk of the population is uninvolved and corporations, lobbyists and think tanks get rich.

Rachel Maddow the MSNBC host of the Rachel Maddow Show wrote in her outstanding book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power:

“The reason the founders chafed at the idea of an American standing army and vested the power of war making in the cumbersome legislature was not to disadvantage us against future enemies, but to disincline us toward war as a general matter… With citizen-soldiers, with the certainty of a vigorous political debate over the use of a military subject to politicians’ control, the idea was for us to feel it- uncomfortably- every second we were at war. But after a generation or two of shedding the deliberate political encumbrances to war that they left us… war making has become almost an autonomous function of the American state. It never stops.” 

Now, going back to the protestors for a minute. The right to protest and disagree with policy and the politics of war is important and for Americans is protected under the First Amendment. That being said I think it is important that when one protests a war that they direct their protest at the appropriate target, the army of lobbyists and think tank wonks that promote the politics of war regardless of who is President and not the soldiers. The fact is that the lobbyists, pundits that promote war don’t care about the protesters or the troops. This is because no matter who is in office or who controls Congress they will promote policies that keep them employed and their businesses enriched. Marine Major General and Medal of Honor winner Smedley Butler was quite right when he said:

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

I may disagree with the manner of how and when veterans protest wars that they have served like those that threw their medals away in Chicago last year. However, I am not going to question their motives, integrity or honor even if I disagree with their manner of protest because I came back different from war.

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When a society sends off its sons and daughters to fight in wars that no one understands, and the vast majority of people no longer support it is no wonder that some veterans make such displays. Likewise it is understandable why other veterans have major issues with such protestors, just as many Vietnam veterans still feel the hurt of how a nation turned its back on them. For example I still have a terrible time even thinking about Jane Fonda, the images of her manning a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun when my dad was serving in Vietnam.

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Protests may make some feel good, but they often miss the bigger point of why wars like these go on for so long.  That they do is because misguided policies have brought about a chronic disconnection in our society between those that serve in the military and those that do not. But how can there not be when in the weeks after 9-11 people like President Bush and others either directly or in a manner of speaking told people to “go shopping”* as we went to war in Afghanistan? When I returned from Iraq I returned to a nation that was not at war whose leaders used the war to buttress their respective political bases.

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I think that Armed Forces Day should be better celebrated but I am grateful to those people that do things every day to thank and support military personnel in thought, word and deed like the Maine Greeters and Pease Greeters. The interesting thing about these groups is that they are made up of citizens from across the political spectrum, veterans and non-veterans who simply care for and appreciate the men and women that serve in and fight the wars that no-one else can be bothered to fight.

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I just hope and pray that the end in Afghanistan does not turn into an even worse historic debacle than suffered by the British or the Soviets during their ill fated campaigns. Of course the politicians, pundits, preachers and the defense contractors, banks and lobbyists will find a way to profit from this no matter how many more troops are killed, wounded or injured and how badly it affects military personnel or their families. After all, to quote Smedley Butler, “war is a racket.”

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President Bush’s actually words were “Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t — where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop…” http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011011-7.html

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2 Comments

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, philosophy

2 responses to “Armed Forces Day 2013: A Sober Reflection on a Nearly Invisible Holiday

  1. I remember being in a very small minority when growing up, going to Armed Forces Day shows and parades with my father, a WW2 and Korea vet. I also remember, as late as 1988, protesters trying to break up the Chicago Armed Forces parade, running in front of tanks and throwing red paint at the men in uniform. I’ve also watched the more recent spurts of “troop support”, as flags appear then rapidly banish from porches, and yellow stickers fade, forgotten, on bumpers and tailgates. I watched the swift reversal of opinion from “Why are we bothering with Kuwait?” to “America Kicks Ass!”.
    Too much of the population are fickle creatures. We should need neither an ongoing conflict, nor special days on the calendar to give the love, respect, and support that our troops and veterans so richly deserve. Remember the stories of so many paper files for vets’ carre at the VA, that buildings’ floors were sagging? Have you heard about that lately, as opposed to the tempest in a teapot “Benghazi-gate”?
    I think the whole country would be better off, slower to war and quicker to peace, and FAR more honestly supportive of our troops and vets, if we would just adopt, as our raisson de vivre, the motto of your brothers-in-arms within the Navy, the US Marine Corps.
    “Semper Fidelis”. For all that the miniscule percentage of the US population have done for the rest of us, we should ALL be “always faithful”.

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