When I mentioned this anniversary on social media, it elicited multiple comments; many of them thanking me for my service. I’m appreciative because I know people’s gratitude always comes from a genuine and heart-felt place.
At the same time, being thanked for my service can also raise an uncomfortable question…
Who was it exactly that I served?
Certainly I served my country, but I joined up mostly to serve myself. I wasn’t close to being ready for college at eighteen, but knew I’d probably want to attend eventually; so I did what countless other young men and women with similarly limited options do each and every year all across America…I enlisted in the military.
In my case, I committed to a 2 ¼ -year stint in the U.S. Army as an M1A1 Battle Tank Operator (Driver); earning money for college tuition via the G.I. Bill and Army College Fund.
We’d been at peace for so long at that point -something which must surely sound strange to younger readers- that I thought the likelihood of us going to war to be minimal. Certainly I thought the risk worth the payoff in tuition money…and maturity too. So I went in with eyes open, and when I drew the short straw, I dutifully joined my comrades and off to war I went.
By the time the tanks rolled in, we’d been pounding the Iraqis pretty hard for over a month, not only from the air, but also with artillery and by bellying our tanks up to the berms (giant mounds of dirt) dividing Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and shooting anything that moved.
When the ground-war began, my division (1st Cavalry) was responsible for creating the diversion up the middle which allowed others to flank the enemy on either side. When we punched through that day, they were beaten and battered, but also dug in and waiting for us.
My time at war was mostly experienced with a sense of detachment and surreal-ness that is difficult to describe. It’s a testament to the level of training they put U.S. soldiers through that I could be so calm driving my tank backwards through a minefield, surrounded by oil-filled trenches rigged to explode as small-arms fire pinged off our tank’s armor.
I can still see a mortar land where we’d been a scant few seconds prior as we backed through that minefield with only the shouted directions from my tank’s loader to steer by.
I can still remember him yelling for me to look right as I cut the smoke generator.
I can still see the two Apache helicopters, looking like cobras about to strike, moments before they launched the hellfire missiles that almost certainly ended the lives of the Iraqis who had been trying to kill us just moment before.
If the patch on the front of the uniform said “Exxon” or “Lockheed-Martin” instead of “U.S. Army”, would soldiers be so willing to lay down their lives?
Would people be so quick to thank them for their service?
If the answer to these questions is no, we owe it to those fighting on our behalf to ensure that the people we elect can be trusted to only send our sons and daughters into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary.
Unfortunately, America no longer elects the best and brightest; we now mostly select candidates with the deepest pockets able to convincingly deliver blatant lies and half-truths. Thus, those making the critical decisions regarding this nation’s defense and the fate of its soldiers over the past few decades -regardless of party- have primarily been a collection of hacks, shills and yes-men owing their political careers to one special interest or another.
Without question, there are threats in the world which need to be addressed on occasion, sometimes militarily, but always with forethought and intelligence; not in such a ham-handed way that it all but guarantees blowback.
The best way to guard against hornets is not to vigorously kick the nest.
However, if the people pulling our government’s strings are all heavily invested in the tools of war…well, then going to war without any clearly defined definition of victory, blowback be damned, is probably exactly what we’d do. Sound familiar?
Every single soldier who has died or whose life has been inexorably altered, not in the service of defending America from imminent danger but to defend the economic interests of the Political Donor Class, is a stain on the soul of our nation and a complete waste of life and potential.
When I went off to war, I did so because I made a commitment to go where I was ordered to go, and to fight who I was told to fight. My fellow soldiers and I have honored our end of this bargain time and again.
In return, our government and nation make a reciprocal commitment to soldiers and veterans that they will not be treated with disregard; that they will only be asked to fight when there is a grave and imminent danger to the nation’s security; and that those who fight a nation’s battles will be well cared for when they return home.
Can we honestly say we’ve lived up to any of those commitments very well?
By permitting people unworthy of such a sacred duty to decide when and where our soldiers are asked to risk their lives we -you and I, every one of us- are badly failing in our commitment to this country’s soldiers and veterans.
The economic downturn squeezed young people like no other, which ended up being a fantastic recruiting tool for the military. A nation full of disaffected young people with scant options means a limitless supply of cannon-fodder for the special interests that truly run our government.
I was going to ask why it is that one of the only ways for young people in this country to get a much needed leg-up requires them to risk their lives in the process…but I think I just answered my own question.
Is this really who we want to be, America?
Admitting there is a problem is the first step towards fixing it…and America, we have a problem.
We must start by ensuring that our government is once again run by the best and brightest, rather than the best fund-raisers, campaigners and unrepentant bullshit artists as is currently the case. This doesn’t mean voting for charlatan populists from the donor class like Donald Trump, or for politicians deeply beholden to special interests like Hillary Clinton; it means demanding real changes to a badly broken system. It means voting honest people into office who are willing to do the difficult work required to fix this cancer destroying our nation from within…and who will honor the nation’s sacred commitment to its soldiers and veterans.
If you really want to thank a soldier for their service, stand up and demand a government far better than the broken and corrupt one with which we are currently plagued.
Thank a soldier by electing people who won’t betray this country’s commitment to them simply to pay back political donors.
Thank a soldier by ensuring that our country is once again exceptional in deeds, not just words; a nation which they can truly be proud to serve.