When soldiers returned home from Vietnam, many were greeted with boos and castigations. At its height, Vietnam was a very unpopular war and many Americans let the returning GIs know it.
In hind sight, Vietnam was a war that never needed to be fought. So what does one say to the many veterans who did serve and saw their buddies hurt or killed? Somehow “thank you for your service” just doesn’t seem appropriate.
Veterans of the last 10 years in Afghanistan plus all veterans of Iraq share a common fate. They served also in wars that never needed to be fought but without the draft most Americans never got that upset with these wars. “Thank you for your service” might seem a little more appropriate but still carries a hollow meaning. What should we say?
I suggest one should say “I’m sorry I let you down”.
I think it is about time Americans faced up to the disservice we collectively have done to military men and women. The disservice is not about the hardship of foreign duty or the mortal risks each military member was exposed to. That goes with the uniform.
The disservice, rather, relates to the dysfunctional elected leaders who sent the troops into war and the even greater avoidance of accountability on the part of American voters in not recalling or voting out of office each of these officials.
Had Americans stood up and said America fights only for its national interests, does so with all its resources, and fights only to win, then we could look veterans in the eye and truly thank them for their service.
For Iraq and Afghanistan (post 2004), Americans need to begin apologizing to veterans and opening the truth about the depth of America’s inadequate senior leadership which sent young men and women into war. Only by telling the truth, can Americans help these veterans come to grips with (what is becoming clearer every day) the waste of time and unfair huge personal risk they were asked to endure. Only the truth will help them understand why the Middle East is and will continue to be such a mess despite their sacrifices.
When I was younger, Memorial Day Parades were about veterans mainly from World War II. That was a time of horror. Even though many mistakes were made, WWII, however, was a war where America was all in and it wasn’t necessary to thank service men and women because everyone was expected to do their part.
Today’s “thank you for your service” is short for “tough break buddy, you went and I didn’t have too”.
The more I say it the more I become convinced “I’m sorry I let you down” is far more honest and pays a much greater tribute to the vet.