I wrote this on November 11, and then before I could get a thumbs-up from certain people to post it, life intervened. So, it’s a little late, but still worth saying. As GB Stern said, silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.
Hello, US Veterans.
Thank you for your service.
Yesterday my dear wife, Lioness, led an impassioned service in which she kinda told off my congregation (which is sometimes a preacher’s job). Many of our members pretty much imprinted their interactions with all things military in the sixties, and have unresolved issues around the fact that violence is sometimes necessary, and all the complexity and social structure which arises from that simple fact. We may say that we support the human beings who serve in our military, and we may mean it sincerely with our forebrains, but when our hindbrains have reservations, it shows in the body language, the uncomfortable facial expression, the awkward conversational pause where they don’t know what to say to someone who says, “I’m serving in the military”. And then military members don’t feel welcome.
This is strikingly similar to congregations which want to be inclusive of TLBG people, but who haven’t done the groundwork to do it right, to know what phrasings are freighted with baggage, to get comfortable enough that they don’t unconsciously wipe their hands after shaking yours. Sure, they say they welcome you, and they want to welcome you — but they haven’t cleaned up enough of the garbage in the yard to be able to welcome you.
People who serve in the military put their lives, their physical health, and their sanity on the line. Some come out smelling like roses, full of success stories and fervor. Some get a raw deal and come out bitter. Some come out broken. Some come out in a coffin, or not at all.
Some volunteer for better reasons than others. Their reasons don’t change the fact that they have volunteered.
Sometimes people forget that one of the risks service members assume, among all the others, is the risk that they will bleed, suffer, and die for a bad policy decision, or an unnecessary war. Service is largely a binary choice. Once you take the oath, you don’t get to dictate how it’s fulfilled. You can’t win a firefight democratically. You have to take orders. One of the subtle, pervasive risks of armed conflict is that it accustoms societies to hierarchical organizations and reflexive obedience to orders, two things which are very dangerous because of their tendency to magnify the impacts of bad decisions.
During and after the Vietnam era, one thing Americans did very, very poorly was to fail to separate American foreign policy, which thoughtful people of good conscience could reasonably condemn, from the service members who implemented that policy. This was an especially egregious mistake, much more ethically questionable, when so many of our service members were coerced by the draft, being volunteers only in the sense that, having been drafted, they chose active service instead of prison.
You may agree with their decision to serve. You may not agree. You may be like the many, many, military families who taught their children that they had an obligation to step up and then were profoundly grateful when those children were rejected for military service. Choices like these can be difficult and complicated.
My grandfather served in World War II, but he was personally lucky: he was an educated professional who was older than the average volunteer, and so he ended up stateside, teaching radio operators. The rest of my family was very lucky, all born too young or too old to be required to serve. No one chose to, and I didn’t have that modeled for me.
It’s probably good, for me individually, that I didn’t serve. When I was young enough, I don’t think I’d have made a good soldier, or come out well. I didn’t have military service modeled for me, and I grew up during Vietnam and post-Vietnam, raised to a large extent as a pacifist (which brought its own garbage that I had to work through). Now, of course, I’m too old and too transsexual for them to take me. Like the families whose kids were found unfit, my family can be grateful for that, because after I grew up enough I came to feel an obligation to serve, myself.
So, it’s Veterans’ Day. I’m not going to tell anyone how to feel. But I know how I feel.
I feel profoundly grateful to the human beings who stepped up to keep me and mine safe.