<< The Body Politic

“On War, Guilt, and ‘Thank you for your service'”

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Elizabeth Samet has a nice op-ed commenting on the familiar “thank you for your service” dialogue and what it says about our society’s relationship with its military. She writes:

The successful reincorporation of veterans into civil society entails a complex, evolving process. Today, the soldier’s homecoming has been further complicated by the absence of a draft, which removes soldiers from the cultural mainstream, and by the fact that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have little perceptible impact on the rhythms of daily life at home. […]

The specter of this guilt — this perdurable archetype of the hostile homecoming — animates today’s encounters, which seem to have swung to the other unthinking extreme. “Thank you for your service” has become a mantra of atonement. But, as is all too often the case with gestures of atonement, substance has been eclipsed by mechanical ritual. After the engagement, both parties retreat to separate camps, without a significant exchange of ideas or perspectives having passed between them.

Her conclusion sums her point up well:

Few Americans have understood more clearly the seductions and inadequacies of professing gratitude than Abraham Lincoln. Offering to a mother who had lost two sons in the Civil War “the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic,” Lincoln nevertheless acknowledged “how weak and fruitless must be any words … which should attempt to beguile” her from her grief. Expressions of thanks constitute the beginning, not the end, of obligation. [Emphasis added.]

The whole thing can be found here.