By Bob Garfield, Sunday 11 November 2012 19.44 EST
The video is lovely, affecting and – considering the subject matter – reasonably understated.
A 60-ish guy sits at a lunch counter when a younger man, in army fatigues, walks in and orders a coffee. With no particular fanfare, the waitress serves him … on the house. Side by side, the two men exchange glances, and the younger catches a glimpse of the elder’s forearm tattoo.
As the soldier makes his way with the coffee to a table, a diner approaches him to say:
“Thank you for your service.”
A little boy poses next to him for a photo with a real, live hero.
In America, such offerings of appreciation are now commonplace. A soldier in uniform can scarcely navigate an airport terminal without being accosted every 30ft with spontaneous expressions of appreciation. Because, as we are reminded again and again and again, by play-by-play announcers and presidents, men and women in the uniform are heroes defending our freedom.
Political Correctness 2.0 prohibits anyone from questioning this particular article of faith, although the truism requires a somewhat expanded definition of heroism, and a vastly expanded definition of “defending our freedom.” But the buy-in is nearly universal. It’s as if the entire culture is purging its guilt from the Vietnam era, when returning military were given the cold shoulder on a grand scale.
Vietnam, of course, was a stupid, costly, trumped-up war that divided the nation. And men in uniform bore the brunt of the resentment – even though they were mainly drafted into service. Apocryphal memory has it that soldiers, sailors and airmen were spat upon. No such episode has ever been documented, but nonetheless, the indignation was palpable.
After My Lai, a horrendous atrocity by a rogue army outfit, the term “baby-killer” was casually tossed around. There were no parades, that’s for sure.
Hence the twist is this video. The kid who posed with the active-duty soldier now approaches the man at the counter, the man whose tattoo commemorates his Vietnam cavalry unit.
“Are you a hero, too?” the kid asks. Then, pointing back to the soldier in uniform he adds, “That man says you were.”
Ah, at long last, recognition.
“I just served as best I could,” the vet replies.
And eyes welled with tears throughout the land.
It’s hard to fault the sentiment behind this production, by the Inspiration Network TV ministry that rose from the ashes of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL. On Veterans Day, it’s a poignant reminder of the sacrifices – small, large and the largest – made by our armed forces. It’s also a vivid reminder of how far the pendulum of public opinion has swung.
Too far. Can we not honor and respect the commitment of our soldiers, sailors and airmen without beatifying them?
When someone is declared a hero for lacing up combat boots, no matter how far from harm’s way, what does that say about those who patrol the Nuristan Province under constant threat from Taliban ambush? And what does it say about the soldier who darts into the open to attend to a fallen comrade?
Are they all equally heroes? Or have we devalued the word?
This growing “cult of the military” would be vexing if it were, indeed, the result of the society acting spontaneously to expiate past sins. But the truth probably has more to do with manipulation. Think back to the invasion of Iraq, a stupid, costly, trumped-up war that divided the nation. When the public finally began to wonder what in the world deposing a Gulf dictator had to do with 9/11 or our national security (answer: absolutely nothing), suddenly the bumper stickers began to appear:
Support Our Troops.
And with that, skepticism about George W Bush’s invented threat, not to mention the abominable expenditure of blood and treasure, was conflated with undermining our heroes.
To question the war was somehow to question them. It was unpatriotic. It was a betrayal. And thus did the worship of the uniform serve the interests of the government. Reduced to the role of poster children, our heroes easily won our sympathy – at the expense of our reason, and ultimately their own dignity.
Is it honoring anybody’s sacrifice – or simply abusing it all over again – to use them as a trump card against doubt?
There is a term for those who go into battle to serve the cynical political purposes of the powerful: cannon fodder.
Now we are at Veterans Day, when the nation is meant to honor the true sacrifices of those who have served. Whether in defense of freedom or in pursuit of corrupt adventurism, they have done their duty at risk of life and limb. But, good grief, let us think of how we honor them. I’d say start by not being simultaneously grandiose and trite. “Hero” should not be trivialized by overuse. “Defending our freedom” is on the verge of being Orwellian.
Come to think of it: “Thank you for your service” seems just about right.
Photograph of U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller relaxing during the Second Battle of Fallujah, by Luis Sinco for the Los Angeles Times. http://mediastorm.com/publication/the-marlboro-marine