Thanking Them for Their Service

A few years ago, Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch aired a tear-jerker television commercial purporting to show an airport crowd of travelers rising from their seats to applaud troops coming home from the Middle East. The one-minute spot went viral on You Tube, as did the commentary from viewers.

The footage was fake from beginning to end. The soldiers were actors, the airport crowd were actors and the "soldiers" came in through the gates and the onlookers rose from their seats on the film director's command.

But the viewers who pointed this out online were denounced by other viewers as anti-American scum who hated American heroes, as Communists and worse.

People do spontaneously applaud returning veterans at airports, perhaps more often since the Budweiser commercial first aired in 2008, but that particular first showing was a fraud.

We have gone nuts about our veterans, every one of whom must be a hero. When I tell people I served in the United States Army in the 1950s, total strangers assume a worshipful expression and tell me "thank you for your service." They have no idea what my service was; I could have been a cook or a commando, a private or a general, but to them I am a hero.

This "every veteran a hero" fantasy cheapens the brand. There have been great heroes in America's wartime history, and not a few scoundrels, but most servicemen and women never had the occasion to be either. During the war-free years that I served on active duty, most young American men were drafted, dutifully served their two years, stayed out of trouble and went back to civilian lives. No more.

Why has this blind hero-worship of anyone in uniform come about? There are some obvious reasons, some of them clearly having to do with guilt for past misdeeds:

1. As the Vietnam war became increasingly unpopular, so did the men and women who served there. Antiwar demonstrators were indiscriminate in their scorn for anyone in uniform or associated with the military. Demonstrators marched on the Pentagon, defaced recruiting posters, burned their draft cards and called returning GIs "baby-killers." Servicemen on leave took to wearing civilian clothes to avoid being cursed and even spat upon.

Ironically, few protesters realized until late in the war that the real targets of their hatred, the ones who developed and perpetuated the misbegotten rationales for the war, were the policymakers and enablers in the White House, the State Department and the halls of Congress. But the returning men and women in uniform, heroes and all, took the brunt of the criticism. So, a generation later, there is a measure of guilt among the older and maybe now-turned-wiser protesters for this misdirected scorn.

2. The military draft, in effect since 1940, was abolished in 1973. Since then, the United States has relied on an all-volunteer force. This has resulted in a demographic shift: during the years the draft was in effect, while draft-eligible men could obtain temporary deferments for education or particular hardships, single able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 26 (after 1948; during World War II the upper age limit was 45) were all required to register for the draft, and chosen by lottery. No exceptions were made for wealth or educational achievement; the result was a highly democratic, diverse body of men.

The all-volunteer services changed all that. Some of today's servicemen and women volunteers may have joined in search of adventure, but many more did so in search of a steady income and the hope of acquiring the tools of a future civilian job (a major selling point for recruiters). They serve longer terms than their predecessors; many re-enlist and return for multiple tours of duty in combat zones. They are not like their draft-era counterparts, temporarily removed from civilian life. When they walk through those airport gates, we know many of them may soon be walking back the other way, off to another war or another dangerous assignment. For many, military service is the only profession that will matter, even long after they have left active duty. There are bound to be heroes among them, even though many may have difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

3. Underlying the shift in public attitudes toward military men and women has been an uglier truth: America is permanently either at war or preparing for the next one. The America that claims to be the world's leader in education, in the sciences, in medicine, in literature, in entertainment and in sports, and endlessly extols its commitment to democracy, is also by far the world's leader in military spending, in weapons research and development and in military involvement around the world. Americans have waged some fifteen wars, at least one war in every decade, since 1945. No generation of young Americans has been spared the opportunity to fight and die for his or her country.

4. Finally, successive administrations have successfully muted public criticism of America's war mentality. In the 1970s President Nixon's Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, managed to stifle Congressional criticism of military programs by encouraging major defense contractors to establish subcontractors in every congressional district in the country. Even the most peace-minded of congressmen and women now find themselves having to tread gingerly where constituents in their districts work for a defense contractor. And those contractors, particularly since the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, have been careful to remind politicians of their ability to give or withhold significant campaign contributions, to them or their opponents. And for the most part the news media now give scant space or air time to critics of military programs or policies.

As long as the United States remains a warrior nation, there will be legitimate warriors to thank for their service. But is it too much to look forward to the day when they are only old men we are thanking?