When I was growing up, the military was a part of my life. I certainly wasn’t a Military Brat, but my grandfathers, my father, and my uncles had all served in World War One, World War Two, or the Korean War. Every Memorial Day I would stand next to my father who for one sixty second period every year would snap to attention as a marching band paraded down Main Street and I felt an overwhelming sense of pride.
All that changed with the Vietnam War when for many people my age the draft signaled certain doom and the military became a path to be feared. It was from then on that a rift seemed to develop between those who served and those who had not, between those who felt vilified upon returning home and those who had no way to talk to them about their sacrifice and the traumas they carried with them.
It’s that lingering inability to connect that has made Memorial Day, and like it, Veteran’s Day, holidays that are somewhat uneasy for me because beneath all the media buzz a major cultural rift is exposed between those who have served in the military and the vast majority of us who never have. It’s an issue called the civilian military divide and it’s growing.
For the past ten years or so we’ve been used to hearing the term the “one percent” to designate the super rich. There’s another “one percent,” however, or more accurately “less than one half of one percent:” the number of men and women who serve in the military. In fact, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was actually very accurate when he said, “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them.”
Because military bases are worlds unto themselves, being separate from civilians is unavoidable. Military personnel also tend to come from certain parts of the country. Among the ten states with the highest enlistment rates only Maine is in New England. Among the ten states with the lowest enlistment rates, Massachusetts is fourth from the bottom.
And it’s always on Memorial Day, when the towns hold services to reflect and remember those who lost their lives in service to their country, that we see a lot of veterans. That’s the time that’s toughest for me. That’s when I really don’t know what to say or do. The most popular phrase, of course, is “Thank you for your service,” which I confess feels awkward, because in all honesty I have no idea what the person I’m thanking has experienced, or what I’m thanking them for having done. In fact my gratitude feels like a mere gesture, like shaking hands in a receiving line, because it doesn’t invite a conversation, or a real request to listen to what that service person’s experiences entail.
While I’m sure it varies from veteran to veteran there are many vets who don’t like to hear the phrase, except from another veteran or a member of a veteran’s family. From what I’ve read, the reasons vary wildly. Some vets feels grateful to have served in a military and see no need for a ‘thank you;’ others feel private about their service and get uneasy when it’s brought up in public by a stranger. Others, who went through horrors we can never imagine, feel that civilians had no skin in the game, and therefore have no reason, except for their own guilt, to bring it up.
The military civilian divide is an enormous issue, one that begs a national conversation that in these fractious times I doubt we’ll ever have.
So how would a civilian like me pay my respects to a person whose life is very unlike my own but to whom I very much want to show respect?
What I try to do is show up. That is, make it a point to attend one of the local services. Watch the faces of veterans in attendance. Understand how important their military service was to them. Assuming the opportunity, even asking a vet what he or she did in the military, how long they served, and what were their most meaningful moments. In times like these I don’t say much. I just try to give them my full attention.
And maybe that’s the only thing we civilians can do on days that honor veterans, that is, to shut down our own noise and listen.
I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.