I was reading my former colleague Ed Palm’s excellent essay on the return of veterans to college, “The Veterans Are Coming! The Veterans Are Coming!” In the course of discussing the longstanding ambivalence and uncertainty with which vets are treated on college campuses, Palm offers several very sensible suggestions to ease their transition, including: “Treat veterans as you would any other student,” “Do not shy away from any political or social issues appropriate to your class,” and so on. An academic and a veteran of the Vietnam War himself, Palm builds a strong case for best practices in integrating former warriors into the college classroom.
Only one of Palm’s recommendations has stirred any controversy: “Do not thank veterans you don’t know for their service.” Palm’s reasoning is that anonymous thank-yous are not only apt to be taken the wrong way but assume an unmerited familiarity with the individual veteran’s circumstances and beliefs. Several veterans who left comments on the website, however, have argued that they personally appreciated strangers’ thank-yous, and they have recommended this practice as, in the words of one, “good form.”
But is it good form? I’m not talking about the individual veteran or well-wisher’s feelings; I’m talking about the reflex “thank you for your military service” as a social practice. Is this practice productive of social good or not?
To answer this question, we first have to understand the reasons for the practice. As I see it, there are three principal reasons one might wish to thank veterans for their service:
1. They perform work that is vital to our society’s functioning.
2. The work they perform is difficult, demanding, and dangerous.
3. This vital, difficult work embodies certain values—patriotism, selflessness, sacrifice—that most of us claim to approve but that few of us adequately practice in our own lives or acknowledge in the lives of others.
Of these three, the second seems least subject to dispute. Military service is difficult in every conceivable way: physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, ethically. Shouldn’t people be thanked for voluntarily undergoing such difficulties?
Perhaps they should. But if so, then shouldn’t we also thank all the other people who voluntarily perform difficult, demanding, even dangerous jobs? This would include, of course, police officers and firefighters—but it might also include anyone in the penal system (prison guards and so forth), pilots, ships’ captains, bus drivers, airport security agents, field agents in the FBI and CIA, anyone who works with hazardous materials, health care workers who expose themselves to illness, child care workers who do the same, garbage collectors who encounter syringes in plastic bags, high school teachers who break up gang fights in the hallways, college professors whose students walk into the classroom armed with semiautomatic weapons, and, for that matter, those thousands of poor souls who went to work at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It’s a dangerous world—that’s why we have a military in the first place—and though of course the risks differ by profession, there are millions of workers who put their health, their security, even their lives on the line every day, as a matter of course. Shouldn’t they be thanked for their service?
But perhaps these workers fail the first criterion: that of performing vital service to their country. I’m afraid this isn’t so either. Everyone in the list above—and lots of others I can think of, from orderlies to Peace Corps recruits to soup kitchen servers—perform indispensable social services; that’s how a complex society works. Again, one might dispute which job is more vital to society’s functioning; one might privilege serving in the military over, say, addressing the physical, mental, and emotional afflictions of those in hospice care. But I’d still argue that if we’re going to thank people routinely for their service, we should thank those hospice care workers along with our veterans.
So that leaves us with the final, and least tangible, criterion: the values embodied by military service. I don’t deny that those values exist, at least potentially, in such service; nor do I deny that they are essential social values. (I do, however, deny that one should indiscriminately and under every circumstance attribute those values to military service. As I’ve argued in an earlier post, we’re obligated as moral agents to judge the conflicts in which our military engages, and I would no more thank a veteran for serving in the criminal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than I would thank someone for breaking into my neighbor’s home.) Yet even if we grant the questionable assumption that patriotism, sacrifice, and selflessness are synonymous with military service, we will be forced to admit that there are many other people, including you and me, who act patriotically, who sacrifice, who give of themselves selflessly day in and day out. What else do taxpayers do? What do parents do? What do ministers do? What do artists, bloggers, environmentalists, antiwar activists do? In short, those who serve in the military—to say nothing of the military itself—have not cornered the market on social value or values. If we believe they have, our own values are dangerously impoverished.
In the end, I hope it is clear, this is neither an argument against veterans nor against thanking them for their service. Rather, it is an argument against the assumption that military service lies in a class by itself and merits a regard entirely out of proportion to the regard owed other members of our society. It is an argument for recognizing value where value lies, and for acknowledging the value one recognizes. So I’d like to conclude by saying, simply, whoever you are, thank you for your service.