A friend, another military veteran, told me that often he felt angry when people thanked him for his military service. I have since noticed that I sometimes react with uncertainty, discomfort, or even anger. After reflection, I identified several different sources for these reactions.
First, the comment “Thank you for your service” often seems gratuitously glib. I’m proud of my military service. I enjoyed performing a job that was personally rewarding and that allowed me to make a difference in people’s lives while supporting a cause greater than self-interest. Many times, the thanks come from people in such an oft-handed manner that I wonder if the person has ever really thought about the sacrifices that people in uniform make almost daily, e.g., the long hours with no overtime pay, frequent and extended separations from loved ones, and going into harm’s way. I wonder how many of the people thanking me begrudge paying their taxes, would never consider volunteering for the military, and think that government bureaucrats (this includes numerous military personnel, especially senior ones) routinely waste large sums of tax dollars.
Second, verbal affirmation is occasionally nice to hear but actions speak more loudly. Saying “Thank you for your service” is no substitute for fulfilling a citizen’s responsibilities to vote and to communicate opinions to elected leaders. In the U.S., civilian politicians, not the military, decide the conflicts in which the military will fight. Currently, the U.S. is waging three de facto wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). Military personnel regularly go into harm’s way in two of those theaters. Yet polls show that only a minority of Americans supports U.S. involvement in these conflicts. Furthermore, Congress has funded most of the $1.3 trillion cost to date for these three wars through budget deficits rather than risk voter outrage over tax increases. Tomorrow’s citizens will pay the bill for today’s wars.
From a Christian perspective, terming any of these conflicts a just war is problematic. One requirement of a just war, for example is that the war has a reasonable chance of success. Neither the wars in Afghanistan nor in Iraq, in spite of eight plus years of U.S. occupation and billions of dollars, has succeeded in establishing a secure, stable, and prosperous democracy. For example, the Afghan war is now the longest war in U.S. history. The approximate $120 billion that the U.S. will spend in 2011 on the war in Afghanistan represents $4000 per Afghan and dwarfs the projected 2011 Afghan GNP of less than $20 billion. Development spending from the U.S. and other nations will total roughly $2.5 billion this year in Afghanistan. Yet the Afghan government remains mired in corruption, actually governs relatively little of Afghanistan, and wants us out.
Fought with an all-volunteer force (and private contractors!), the wars have not ignited a political firestorm of opposition as the Vietnam War did. Few Episcopalians serve in the U.S. military, as, similarly, do few children of politicians and few graduates of elite colleges and universities. Following GEN Petraeus’ 2007 Congressional testimony, coverage of the Iraq war on the evening news dropped from 25% of broadcast time to 3% by mid-2008.
Why is the Church so silent about these wars? If more Episcopalians served in the military, would the Episcopal Church – its leaders, clergy, and members – speak more volubly and vociferously about these wars? What would Jesus say about the U.S. fighting wars of choice in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya? True support for our troops entails ensuring that the military fights only morally justifiable wars.
Third, true support for the troops includes caring for the troops. Cards and care packages are nice. A warm welcome home for units returning from Afghanistan and Iraq represents a healthy morale boost and moral improvement, sharply contrasting with the unwarranted abuse that many personnel received when they returned home from Vietnam. These are easy, positive steps.
However, effective caring also requires improving government policies and programs. More than 7200 American military personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan; tens of thousands more veterans have returned home physically or mentally wounded, sometimes permanently disabled. These casualties constitute an underfunded emotional, social, and financial liability. Programs to help returning veterans reintegrate into their families and into society are a good first step, but much remains unknown about how best to do this. (One good resource for dealing with PTSD is Unchained Eagle led by Episcopal priest Bob Certain; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has also developed a valuable congregational resource, Care for Returning Veterans.) Many Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities are ill equipped and staffed to aid women veterans; the VA lacks sufficient resources to assist the growing number of wounded veterans. The Church and a grateful citizenry will rightly advocate for military veterans and their families, adequately funding programs for warrior reintegration, healthcare, education and employment benefits, family adjustment support initiatives, etc.
Finally, the Church has a unique role to fill: helping returning warriors, especially Christian ones, to deal with their guilt for having committed, assisted in, or witnessed acts that in peacetime are immoral but that are necessary elements of warfighting, e.g., killing. In the early Church, the Church sometimes required a Christian returning from a just war to abstain from Holy Communion for as long as three years as an act of penance and moral rehabilitation. That seems excessive. Conversely, simply welcoming the returned warrior with open arms and verbal thanks for a hard job well done compromises the Church’s moral teaching and fails to honor the veteran’s often real and spiritually healthy feelings of guilt and uncleanliness. Private confession and pastoral counseling can help. More importantly, TEC can beneficially develop a process and liturgies for reintegrating returned veterans into the Christian community, perhaps most appropriately linking these to the Lenten journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter.
The Fourth of July offers a great time to celebrate not only American independence but also military veterans, thanking them in word and deed, remembering them in our prayers with the Collect for those in the Armed Forces of Our Country:
Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.