Today is Veterans Day in the United States, and it has me thinking more than usual about the way this nation, and especially those who lead it, treat the military as a rhetorical tool. Presidential election years are always particularly bad for this, with politicians trying to score points right and left on the backs of active duty, reserves, and veterans, but this year seems even worse than usual. Maybe it’s just the election trauma talking, but I’m not so convinced — whether we’re talking about Donald Trump’s attacks on the Khan family or people being dicks to Tammy Duckworth about her military service or untold numbers of campaign advertisements trying to leverage ‘supporting our troops’ into getting votes, it’s been really pervasive this year.
So here’s the thing: The military is a thing in the United States, and it’s a big and complicated thing. Members of the armed services are ostensibly apolitical, though I know it’s impossible to fundamentally leach the politics out of someone. But the military as an entity is tasked with protecting US interests, and the president may be the commander in chief, but the president’s party, beliefs, and affiliations aren’t what’s important. I’ve spent my entire life interacting with people affiliated with the military, and those in the active duty and reserves have stressed how much they’re reminded to stay apolitical: To vote, but to not get directly involved with political issues.
Which can really chafe with some who want to express themselves, but a military filled with people actively engaging in politics and social issues is one that can’t really be as fair and balanced as possible. Veterans, on the other hand, are more than welcome to politically engage, and I’d argue should be encouraged to, because they have access to a body of knowledge and experiences that civilians do not. The best people to comment on military issues are the people who know those issues firsthand.
But it makes me utterly sick with frustration when I see politicians trying to use the military as a rhetorical tool, often in a highly nationalistic who loves America more kind of way, a way that leverages the military but doesn’t give it a voice. And it’s not just politicians who do this, but civilians, too, who seem to spend a lot of time talking about how things are/aren’t offensive to ‘our troops’ and ‘veterans’ but who don’t seem to spend a lot of time actually engaging with people in either category.
That was certainly on display this fall when conservatives had themselves all up in knots over Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit, and later kneel, through the national anthem. There was much discussion about how this was dishonouring America and disrespectful to our troops and veterans, some of whom started a retaliatory movement basically saying ‘fuck off, if you think we served so you could use us as a bargaining chip in a petty fight over a song, you have another think coming.’ Some vets undoubtedly were offended by it, including one whom Kaepernick had a long conversation with. Veterans: Differing opinions on social issues! They really are just like us!
I feel like veterans and the military as a whole are sort of like a dragonfly in amber in the eyes of a lot of the public: There to be admired and looked at and shined up and passed around, but not actually alive. Even as members of the military and their families can sometimes carry added social weight when they speak up — as, for example, in the case of gold star families, some of whom are unfortunately also used cruelly as tearjerker symbols — they are also oddly silenced, sometimes. People want to pronounce what’s good and isn’t for them, but when they actually speak up, people seem sort of startled and sometimes actively upset, in cases when people say they have different needs and priorities.
A country’s national identity is very bound up in its military, and the United States definitely has a huge military culture because our military is so large, and because it’s so powerful — when you are a superpower, there are a lot of complicated emotions that go with it. Conservatives often seem to engage in a simplistic rah-rah pride that makes assumptions about how members of the military feel, while liberals kind of do the opposite, with rhetoric about the military industrial complex and scathing comments about people who serve, paired with their own ideas about how the military feels and what’s good for the US military.
Politically active veterans tend to be praised when they engage in activities that people approve of — speaking at the DNC, say, or promoting conservative causes. They’re taken as bold and outstanding representatives of The Military, while people who are doing things that the general public doesn’t like or feels uncomfortable with get sort of quietly shuffled to the corners. Thus, some really important conversations about military issues aren’t happening where you can see them, because they’re being snuffed out. We aren’t hearing, for example, about mental health and the military, unless people are blaming gun violence on mentally ill veterans.
I don’t pretend to know what’s good for the military. I’ve spent over a decade interviewing, talking with, and collaborating with members of the military, including active duty, reserves, and veterans, and attempting to profile military issues in a way that’s as evenhanded as possible, ideally by positioning the voices of servicemembers front and center. I do know that the military is not a monolith and that people need to be allowed to speak for themselves. I also know that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the way the military is used as a rhetorical tool, and that this sentiment is shared by nearly everyone I interact with both personally and professionally.
There’s a lot of empty-sounding ‘thank you for your service’ going around today, and there are a lot of red poppies out, but beyond these performative gestures of patriotism, I don’t see a lot of interest in listening to members of the military talking about what they need.
Image: Korea Veterans, Mara Maceka, Flickr