Thank You For Your Service

Today is Memorial Day, and across America, villages and towns celebrate past wars and those who took part.

With most of my generation, the most important of those wars was World War II, and by definition, veterans of that war (now few in number) set the standard for service. Their sacrifices clearly, we think, deserve our thanks.

But what about the Korean War, or Vietnam, or the mighty invasion of Grenada? And more recently, what about Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Iraq?

The spirit of Memorial Day would suggest a hearty thanks to Vets of all these wars. But what does one mean when one thanks someone else for their “service”?

With WWII, most people recognize that the world was at war. Had America lost, we would be living in very different conditions than we are. We might be reading in German or Japanese. In addition, WWII was for everyone. All citizens who were fit and able, and of a certain age were drafted if they had not already volunteered. Everyone had “skin” in this war. And most everyone knew someone else who served, and unfortunately most everyone knew someone who had died during action.

Korea and Vietnam also employed the draft, and it was most likely the each American knew someone at that time who was serving. There were differences, however. Korea and Vietnam both represented no danger to the US mainland. Even more significantly, both wars ended in a “tie” or “a strategic withdrawal”, not the unconditional surrender associated with WWII.

Do we still thank people for a not winning?

Grenada, Iraq, and Afghanistan fall into a different category. These wars were fought with an all volunteer Army.  That means that not all Americans needed to participate.  Hmmm.

Grenada was a minor happening and could have been handled with the Los Angeles Police Department if the Pentagon had provided transportation.

Iraq and Afghanistan, however, fit the size and scope of Vietnam or Korea, but these wars’ outcomes will be seen as less clear cut. There is no question the US military prevailed on the battle field. Unlike Korea where US forces deadlocked at the 38th parallel and no winner emerged, or Vietnam where irregular Viet Cong troops would melt away into the jungles only to come back again someplace else.In Vietnam, militarily the US could have stayed as long as it wanted but Americans at home said “enough is enough”.

Iraq and Afghanistan were both wars where military superiority was clearly on the American side. The Iraqi and Afghani’s hearts and minds are a different question. In both countries, feelings seemed to range from “leave me alone” to an overwhelming fundamental Islamic interest in returning to the 15th century.

In WWII, Europe was returned to the path of democracy and human rights. The future is entirely speculative for Iraq and Afghanistan. Should we offer thanks for a mission not accomplished? Hmmm.

War throughout history seems to have followed a similar script. Someone like a King, President, or rebel leader takes charge of a force of soldiers. Kings, Presidents, or rebel leaders call the shots, the soldiers slug it out, some getting killed or wounded. Kings, Presidents, or rebel leaders think up noble reasons for making war. Soldiers slug it out sometimes never coming home.

On my score card, the Korean War was necessary and the outcome was as good as we should have expected. Vietnam was far less certain and backing the South Vietnamese was clearly the wrong choice if our goal was to contain Communist China. The Vietnam War costs in terms of lives lost, money spent, and damages to the environment puts it into the unnecessary column.

Grenada was a joke.

Iraq and Afghanistan should be viewed as fool’s errands. The initial invasion of Afghanistan in hot pursuit of al Qaeda, of course, was completely justified. The stretching of this hot pursuit into a Dom Quixote 12 year journey may have been noble but fits no definition of being in the US national interest. With regards to Iraq, there can be no better definition of fool’s errand.

The question. What does one say to an Iraqi or Afghan War vet?

For any enlisted person, I will gladly thank that person for their service since they did not choose to make these wars.

For the officer corp, it depends. Those who remain “gung ho” and spout virtues about winning these wars or wanting still to remain engaged in either or both countries, I respectfully decline to thank them for their service.

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2 Comments on “Thank You For Your Service”

  1. Kip Says:

    Wars are fought by the military, but they are started and ended by politicians.


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