Yesterday was Veterans Day – the 99th since President Wilson brought it into being as Armistice Day in 1919. It is interesting to note in acknowledging this day that there are no calls for students to be released from the schools on this day as there are for other holidays. A part of this might be attributable to the growing rift between those who have served and the ordinary citizens they have served to protect.
At present, less than half of one percent of Americans are serving in the armed forces. This is a smaller share than at any time since the period between the two world wars. An awareness of what the military does and the sacrifices its members make are especially unfathomable to America’s youth of whom only a third know an immediate family member who has served. In describing the disconnect between the military and the public it serves, retired Navy Admiral Mike Mullen noted that, “Our work is appreciated, of that I am certain, but I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.”
Too often people without military experience believe that what justifies their appreciation are the grim sacrifices made on the battlefields, but other equally real sacrifices are brought home and less acknowledged because they are less obvious. For instance, around 2.5 million men and women served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 675,000 of these have been granted some type of disability. Nearly 500,000 of their children have been clinically diagnosed with depression, and the veterans themselves have coped with higher rates of domestic violence, child abuse, suicide, divorce, mental illness, and substance abuse than are seen in the civilian world. Additionally, throughout their commitment, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have sacrificed in a myriad of other ways. Not everyone can be a general, a fighter pilot, or a Navy SEAL – there are a multitude of inglorious tasks that must nonetheless be done, tedium that must be endured, personal wants deferred, weddings postponed, births of children missed, and holidays lonelier because of a service to one’s country and a fulfillment of one’s duties.
Many of us doubtlessly disagree with the political machinations that guide our military’s objectives, but a country without a population willing to serve forfeits if not its right, at least the likelihood, that it will continue to exist. If nothing else, the willingness of some to serve makes possible the idealistic notions of the millions who do not. The security that we enjoy as Americans is envied by many around the globe, but it comes at a tremendous cost. Currently, American forces can be found in over 150 countries around the world. Nearly 160,000 service personnel are stationed abroad including 24,000 in Afghanistan, 3,000 in Iraq, 50,000 in Japan, 29,000 in South Korea, and nearly 41,000 in Germany. These constant deployments take a heavy toll, but most would agree that the rest of the world’s militaries, especially those of our closest allies, are not competent to carry a share of the burden for a stable political order. However much they may gripe and complain about America acting as the world’s police force, when our allies encounter an emergency, whether it is the genocide of a racial or ethnic minority, the invasion of a weak country by a strong one, the barbarous lunacy of ISIL, piracy in any of the world’s oceans, or the outbreak of Ebola, the world calls America and most of the time, however imperfectly, Americans respond.
The Scythian philosopher Anacharsis wrote that, “Written laws are like spiders’ webs, and will, like them, only entangle and hold the poor and weak, while the rich and powerful break through them.” While most of us would like to inculcate a respect for the law among the young, the reality is also that where and when the world disagrees substantially enough, the law is a paper tiger burned by the violence of men. “War appears to be as old as mankind,” wrote the jurist Sir Henry Maine, “but peace is a modern invention.” The world, at its worst, is a hard place that makes short work of fantasists, and even those who lament violence proffer by it. As goes a quotation often misattributed to George Orwell, “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” True, and as George Washington told the assembled houses of Congress in 1790, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” If we cannot be rid of it, it is best that we honor those who serve on our behalf. The sort of sentiment that too many of America’s servicemen returned to after serving in Vietnam and Korea can be seen in Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy written in 1892. Tommy refers to Tommy Aitkens, which was a slang word for a common soldier.
I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.
I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.
Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.
We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind.
You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!