Like many people who have worn the uniform, that phrase makes me uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable, mind you; not angry or upset as it does for many Vietnam (and these days, I suspect, Afghanistan) veterans. Just uncomfortable.
Because, you see, I did not swear the oath, I did not don the pickle suit, for you. I thought I was doing it for “me,” though 45+ years after the fact I recognize I scarcely understood at the time what that meant. I strongly suspect that even those adorable naifs who are certain they are acting purely out of love for God and Country (who nominally ARE doing it for you) were and are every bit as clueless about what they were saying as I was; even those remarkable few who, after how ever many years, are even more certain now than they were then that they were/are acting for God and Country. Because whatever the character of their certainty then, it is most certainly not the conviction they live by now.
Regardless what they might believe at the time, nobody really understands what they are committing to when they take that oath. And it feels really awkward for being congratulate for having put on a blindfold and then running off a cliff, when you don’t even know IF there is a bottom, much less where the bottom might be to that cliff.
Two things you should understand here. The first is a matter of objective fact. And that is the difference between Veterans day and Memorial day.i It is a really easy difference to understand, which is why it is so sad that so many people do not understand it.
- Veterans day is for those who came home.
- Memorial day is for those who did not.
Which is part of the awkwardness (for me) of when people say, “thank you for your service.” It is a little like saying, “thank you for not taking up space in Arlington.” Because I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me. But I didn’t know at the time what that meant.
I was in the US Army from 1975 until 1978. For context, Saigon fell in April of 1975, and I went active (into Basic training) in June. From ‘76 until I rotated out in June of ‘78 I was stationed on what was, at the time, the East German border, assigned to an IHAWK anti-aircraft missile battery. The closest I ever came to combat was cocking snooks at the Russians, some 12 or so klicks to the east. But for all of that, I did take my duties seriously. Because – and I didn’t really understand this at the time (I’m saying nobody ever does) – swearing the oath changed me. In particular, I came to understand that some 35 years or so after I raised my right hand, I realize I still consider myself bound by that oath. In particular, the part where I swore
That’s some powerful shit right there. In particular, it means that Fascist animals like Donald Trump are persons I am oath bound to oppose. Because for these people, the Constitution is nothing more than toilet paper to wipe their butts on. But even as my entire body shifted at the time of the saying of those words, I am still learning what they mean for me. For me, mind you, not you. And I’m still learning what that means
For example, I have, for some years past (though hardly forever), taken up carrying a copy of the Constitution on my person at all times. This habit was triggered by the TV show The West Wing, where they consistently referred to it as, “the Owners’ manual.” But the reason that show allowed me to realize that doing so was important was precisely because it reminded me that my oath was to the Constitution and not, for example, to the flag. Don’t every let anyone fool you on this point: the flag is a rag. Nobody ever died “defending the flag,” except for sorry-assed buffoons who were too illiterate to pay any attention to the oath that they actually swore. Refulgent in mythological imagery – yet devoid of any cognitive content – the flag is something rightwing fascists go into apoplectic histrionics over. It is not an accident that they only mention the Constitution as though it were itself nothing more than another flag to wave.
So this evening I had a very nice meal at O’Charley’s, which has a very generous offer of a free entree (and the local one included the first beer) for veterans on this Veterans’ day. I find being surrounded by people in a moderate state of noisiness, who are otherwise uninterested in bothering me, to be an excellent context for reflection. Having an external world to tune out makes it easier to concentrate on my thoughts within. (I basically wrote my dissertation with Metallica on a loop, so … yeah.) I frankly thought it was more appropriate to tell the wait staff and cooks, “thank you for your service,” than for anyone to say as much to me. But it was an opportunity to spend some time in my own thoughts, with my body quieted by an environment that included a good meal and non-intrusive environs (non-intrusive in their presence rather than their frantically demanding absence).
And so I’m going to leave this somewhat less than ideally connected stream of consciousness with this one final observation.
When I was in the Army, we never even observed (much less “celebrated”) either Memorial or Veterans’ day. Maybe that has changed since I was in uniform. But back then we never did, and it was only today, 45+ years later that I made that connection.
And it seems right.
To “celebrate” Memorial day, for someone in uniform, is to make a mockery of those who have given “their last full measure.” And to “celebrate” Veterans’ day is like dancing up and down shouting “Yay me!”
The wrongness just doesn’t get any wronger than that. And maybe that’s why having people say, “thank you for your service,” just feels uncomfortable. I didn’t do it for you, even if I came to discover that I did it for my country and my Constitution.
So I’m not going to get angry, I’m not going to be confrontational, I’m not going to be upset.
But at the same time, I wouldn’t mind if y’all just stopped doing that.
– – – – – – – – – –
i These are, of course, the US holidays.