Memorial Day, allegedly born from the aftermath of the Civil War, is a holiday set aside to mark the contributions of those who have fallen in the course of military service in the United States — other nations tend to commemorate their own war dead in November, but the United States does like to be exceptional. This year, I find myself thinking about the disconnect between the military and the civilian left in the United States, and the consequences for us both socially and culturally.
Living in a country with an all-volunteer military and a huge degree of self-segregation into narrow social groups, it’s very easy for many civilian people on the left to avoid closely knowing people who are serving or have served in the military, especially recently. That’s something that has pretty significant consequences, because it tends to underscore an artificial divide between military and civilian in America, a gap that both sides would do well to bridge.
For civilians on the left, it’s very fashionable to express distaste for the military and to repeat stereotypes and social attitudes that aren’t actually supported by the reality — starting with the notion that people in the military are war-loving conservatives. Neither of these things is true, at least, not across the military as a whole. Undoubtedly there are people who love war in the military, just as there are people who love war in the civilian world, though for servicemembers this is a social position with more immediate consequences. As for political beliefs, the military includes a spectrum, from centrist to rightwing to socialist, with people from a variety of walks of life.
There’s a huge degree of diversity in the military — something that comes with a dark history in some instances, as in the case of people of colour pushed into military service due to lack of alternatives. As a highly structured entity, the military also tends to promote a greater sense of equality and fairness: If you do the work and put in the time, and follow a series of steps, your career path can be much more equitable than it would be in the civilian world. (That said, the brass ceiling is a reality, and underrepresented groups in the military are less likely to make their way into high-ranking roles…I don’t want to paint a rosy, utopian view of the service.)
Belonging to the military means joining a complicated insider culture and community, one that provides a sense of inclusion, but also a network of people who understand a very unique experience. If the military looks close-set and insular, some of that is the result of creating a space where people can be frank with each other about their work, in an environment that isn’t laden with civilian baggage.
Because civilians have a lot of baggage around the military. Civilians on the left sometimes seem to really struggle in interactions with servicemembers and military issues, retreating into what they think they know, which is usually stereotype and propaganda. Because they often don’t have close personal connections to servicemembers or vets, and they maintain a barrier to keep it that way, they don’t understand a lot of things about the military.
People sometimes seem surprised to learn that while I’m on the left, I actually have an abiding fondness for and connection to the armed services. Maintaining a military is necessary for national security, and a military can be a tremendous diplomatic tool, as seen when we send out teams of highly trained and experienced people to help with disaster relief, infrastructure support, and other humanitarian needs. I don’t like war, and I don’t want to see the military used offensively, and that’s precisely why I believe it’s important to forge connections with the military and to support those who are working to reform its deeply troubled aspects.
While I haven’t served in the military, members of my family have and are, and the same holds true for many of my friends. I learn things from them, and the reverse is true as well. We both come to a more perfect and much stronger understanding of the sociopolitical role of the military from conversations with each other, because we’re willing to meet each other in the middle of an experience gap. I’ll never know what it’s like to fire missiles or train in 115 degree heat and I’m not going to pretend that I do, but my personal connections enrich my interactions with the military.
Memorial Day can seem like all flag waving and barbecue, but it’s something much deeper than that. However you feel about war, we’ve sent people to fight and die in it time and again, and it’s important to recognise who they were and what they gave up. Not in a sense of thoughtless worship of all things military, but in a sense of understanding why it’s so imperative that we work to prevent war. Walking through the rows of a military cemetery isn’t an uplifting patriotic experience that has me reaching for fife and drum — it’s a sobering and instructive reminder that bad foreign policy decisions and failing to listen to history comes at a cost. By connecting with the military as a complex entity with lots of moving parts, one filled with human beings, I feel on firmer footing, and better equipped to have conversations about things that need to change, like military sexual assault, or the federal government’s inappropriate use of troops to secure the border, or the barriers to success for underrepresented people.
If you’re on the left and you don’t know anyone in the military, or don’t count servicemembers and vets among your close friends, maybe today is the day that should change. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Image: Evening Light, Mark Freeth, Flickr