During nearly every major-league baseball game I have attended over the past few years, the P.A. announcer invites men and women in the military to stand up and then asks the rest of us to “honor their service” and their “heroism.” Most of the civilians in the crowd rise to their feet and applaud loudly. I manage to keep my cynicism to myself.
My problem is not with the young people who get to spend a few hours away from their jobs protecting the United States from its enemies—real, potential, or imagined. It’s the unwitting hypocrisy of my fellow fans that ticks me off. So many of them happily cheer the members of our all-volunteer force while passively opposing the wars that, for over a decade, they and their fellow troops have been fighting. It would be far better for Americans to finally face up to that contradiction.
There is, of course, nothing ambivalent about the physical toll in these conflicts. To date, over 6,500 servicemen and women have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The overall American casualty total for both wars now approaches fifty thousand. But at home, their mission has never been less visible. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney abet the mass amnesia about the ongoing war in Afghanistan. On the rare occasions when it does come up, the candidates tend to argue only about how and when to withdraw our forces, not whether they remain at war with Al Qaeda, which was, after all, the original rationale for the invasion.
Both men are, of course, just responding to the almighty polls. Less than a third of Americans still think the conflict in Afghanistan “is worth fighting”; about the same number felt the same about the war in Iraq before Barack Obama began withdrawing troops from the land George W. Bush and Dick Cheney invaded to destroy horrible weapons that weren’t actually there. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote this month in The Washington Post, “[The Afghan conflict] has stretched into the longest war in U.S. history, and Americans are tired of it.”
Yet we still automatically pay tribute to those on active duty as if they were fighting for a grand and virtuous cause—defending us from imminent attack or struggling to defeat a tyrant bent on conquest. Midway through the agonies of the George W. Bush administration, Americans engaged in hot and often enlightening debates about the wisdom of invading and occupying two Muslim nations. But now lassitude and boredom yield only silence.
Inside the military, the kneejerk applause for the sacrifices of our troops and the absence of any reckoning with the value and justice of their mission has hardly gone unnoticed. Periodically, a high-ranking officer or politician warns about the “disconnect” between the public and the military. Last year, Admiral Mike Mullen, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confessed to a House committee, “The day-to-day connections are less than they used to be, the depth and breadth of who we are and what we’re doing, isn’t there.”
Two years ago, I learned firsthand the truth of his words. William Quinn, a young veteran of the Iraq war who was a student of mine at Georgetown, complained that his fellow undergraduates were reluctant to talk either about the conflict in which he had fought or about the one in Afghanistan. At first, Quinn thought they were afraid such a conversation “would create a hostile environment they would rather avoid.” But soon he realized their silence betokened not discomfort but apathy. Most students knew little about what was at stake and were too involved in the whirl of college life to care. Quinn, a bright former sergeant, had actually opposed the invasion of Iraq. But he grew so alienated from the self-involved lives of his civilian peers that, soon after graduation, he re-enlisted.
The ritualistic, if nearly content-free, applause for the troops is not hard to understand. After four decades of a volunteer military, few Americans, young and old, share the experiences of those who do sign up. There is also an enduring sense of guilt over how the veterans of the Vietnam War were treated on their staggered return home, although the great majority were ignored or pitied rather than vilified, as legend would have it. Warm memories of the combative solidarity Americans expressed during the months just after the attacks of 9/11 linger as well; in ballparks across the land, “God Bless America” still gets sung or at least hummed during the 7th inning stretch.
However, these explanations shade into excuses for a species of civic amorality which is unprecedented in U.S. history. From the Civil War through both world wars, Americans saluted the troops because they appreciated and endorsed the causes for which they were fighting. The angry, sometimes violent debate at home about the wars in Indochina at least confronted the justice of what individual soldiers were doing over there. But we now applaud our servicemen and women as “heroes” while neglecting the policies that have, since 2001, required them, quite literally, to put their lives on the line. Perhaps it would be more honest just to buy them a beer and a hotdog and then go back to watching the damn game.
Michael Kazin’s latest book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, will be out in paperback later this month. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.