or perhaps I've just noticed it recently, there has been a change in the way we board airplanes. There has been an addition to the first groups allowed to board. There are still Our Platinum World Traveler Priority Club members, families travelling with small children, and people who need a little extra time in boarding. To these, one group has apparently been added: Active Duty Military Personnel. . . .
At Fenway Park, long about the fourth or fifth inning of every Red Sox home game here, a member of the military in attendance is singled out, stood atop the Boston dugout, thrown across the huge screen in centerfield, and given a rousing ovation as one of the people who is fighting for our freedom. . . .
There are flyovers at every major sporting event. At the Super Bowl, we generally have the flyover, and the Anthem, and God Bless America. Our profane public ceremonies are now suffused with a kind of sacramental militarism.
On MSNBC, the kindly Doctor Maddow is happily agitating
for Welcome Home Parades for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in our major cities, most notably New York.
Every day these days, apparently, is Memorial Day. . . .
By its public displays, the country is gripped by an immense, endless, and apparently unpayable debt to the men and women who have fought our wars for us, and this is true no matter how popular or unpopular those wars were at the time, or have become recently. The notion of this debt stretches back in time. . . .
The Good War, which is why we now have an ungainly marble corral in Washington, a triumphally Augustan plaza that is unspeakably gaudy next to the quiet majesty of the memorials to the Vietnam and Korean wars. The sins of the country that had abandoned many of the veterans of those two wars — a defeat and a bloody draw — were subconsciously expiated by the garish tribute paid 50 years later to the people who'd fought the last war America actually won. And, then, suddenly, there were two more wars, one of them unpopular and based on lies, and the other one seemingly oblique and endless. And there were The Troops. And, it seemed, for the rest of us, the twain did not meet.
It is marginally inapt to compare the two, but, as regards our cultural veneration of The Troops and our rising (and seemingly impotent) political opposition to the wars they've fought, we seem to have adapted the old right-wing formula of love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin to now read love-the-warrior-hate-the-wars. I think, in part, this is a function of us having gone to an all-volunteer military. . . .
Our methods of repayment, though, are curious, to say the least. We let them get on planes ahead of us, with the elderly and the infirm and the toddlers, but we underfund hospital care and live quite comfortably with the notion that a lot of the functions of the military have been privatized. (Are we that long from Honor The Contractors ceremonies?) We pay tribute to them at ballgames, but send them into battle ill-prepared, and bring them home to decrepit facilities and heedless bureaucracies. We give them parades, but had to be blackjacked into giving them a "new G.I. Bill" that is but a pale shadow of the original one, which did no less than create the modern American middle class. When I first started writing politics, there was an ongoing argument of what were then called "veterans preference" programs, a vestige once again of what was done for the returning World War II vets. The fight was over whether it would be extended to include the veterans then recently returned from Vietnam. It is Vietnam that hangs thickly over our ostentatious public displays of affection for The Troops. It is a determination to Get It Right This Time. However, there is at the heart of it a fundamental misunderstanding of what we got wrong.
The returning Vietnam veteran was treated abominably.
But, in fact, if you want to find the people who did the Vietnam generation the most damage, don't look to the hippies. Look to the institutions staffed and run by what the Vietnam guys used to call, contemptuously, "the Class of '45," the people who ran the VA, and the VFW posts, The Greatest Generation, who looked down on them as losers and who stiffed them on their country's obligations. In actual fact, it was the remnants on the antiwar Left — the people who ran the G.I. coffeehouses and the like — who first took them seriously on issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and the lingering effects of Agent Orange. . . .
The problem was that the government abandoned them. The problem was that the community of other veterans abandoned them. And that went on for years. Ronald Reagan famously called their war "a noble cause" and then shut down all the out-patient psychiatric services that the VA finally put in place. What you did was noble, and now sleep on the sidewalk. Then, in the popular culture, the crazed Vietnam vet became a staple of American entertainment until sensitive vet Jon Voight went down on Jane Fonda in Coming Home and, even there, we had Bruce Dern, the living embodiment of Crazy in American motion pictures for four decades now, playing Fonda's rigid, nutball husband. . . .
Now, for the veterans of the two wars of the past decade, we're giving them all kinds of favors and goodies and public applause, and maybe even a parade or two, overcompensating our brains out, but, ultimately, what does all the applause mean at the end of the day? We are apparently fine with two more years of vets coming home from Afghanistan, from a war that 60 percent of us say we oppose. But we support The Troops. Will we become a more skeptical nation the next time a bunch of messianic fantasts concoct a war out of lies? Perhaps, but we support The Troops. Will we tax ourselves sufficiently to pay for what it costs to care for the people we send to one endless war and one war based on lies? Well, geez, we'll have to think about that, but we support The Troops. . . .
Supporting The Troops always has been a more complicated business than applauding at the ballpark. . . . and if you see any vets, shake their hands and vow to be a better citizen first, so you can really help them later on.