Armed Forces Day was celebrated in some locales Saturday but I would dare say that the vast majority of Americans didn’t notice it. Meanwhile under 50 “Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans” from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War got lots of air time for throwing their “Global War on Terrorism Service Medals” away at the big anti-NATO Summit protest in Chicago. This is the Medal that those that served after September 11th 2001 received for being on active duty in the United States, not actually deployed.
Now there were a fair number of local celebrations to honor members of the Armed Forces across the country. As a member of the military I appreciate those events and the people that put them together, especially those that have taken the time to honor Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. There are others 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. It has been the effort 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. 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 all were or are volunteers.
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 last year and Afghanistan is still going to be with us for a while. 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. 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.
I heard one of the organizers of the medal throwing exhibition apologize for his service. If he wants to apologize to people that generally haven’t been touched by war and haven’t had to make a single sacrifice then fine. If he wants to apologize for acts that he may have committed against Iraqis or Afghani people that is another matter, that can’t be mitigated by tossing medals over a fence. However I think that the manner of by which he and his compatriots demonstrated at the NATO Summit did nothing for those that serve. Tossing a medal away, a medal not earned for combat service is cheap. The medal that they threw away symbolically shows that they served in the homeland on active duty after the 9-11 attacks. Some did serve overseas, some in combat but to throw this particular medal away seemed an odd choice.
The right to protest and disagree with policy and the politics of war is important. It is a right which I will defend. However I think that what these veterans did was more disrespectful to their former comrades and those currently serving than it was to those that make policy. The army of lobbyists and think tank wonks that promote the politics of war regardless of who is President don’t care about this because no matter who is in office or who controls Congress they will promote policies that keep them employed and 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 these veterans protested. However, I am not going to question their motive or honor even if I disagree with their manner of protest because I came back different from war.
But then 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 the protestors the display may make them feel better, but it misses 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.
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.
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.”