Today, every public institution will pause and go through the motions of "thanking" America’s veterans; but the whole pretense ignores that the populace hardly cares about foreign policy.
Veterans’ Day – maybe we ought to drop the whole charade. Don’t get me wrong, there will be celebrations a plenty: the NFL will roll out the ubiquitous stadium-sized flags and march uniformed service members in front of the cameras; cities across the nation will hold parades; and millions of Americans will take a moment to go through the motions and "thank" the nation’s soldiers. Sure, the gestures are sometimes genuine and certainly preferable to the alternative. Still, all this martial spectacle misses the salient point hidden just below the surface: the American people are absolutely not engaged with U.S. foreign policy. Most could hardly name the seven countries its military actively bombing, let alone find them on a map.
Worse still, hardly anyone even talks about America’s wars these days – not the mainstream media, not the president of the United States, not the Congress. Veterans’ Day just happens to fall about a week after the midterm elections – which both President Trump and Barack Obama each told their supporters was "the most consequential of our lifetimes" – but the truth is that foreign policy was hardly even on the agenda this past Tuesday. Americans argued about healthcare, taxes, immigration, and Mr. Trump’s personality, but ignored our supposedly adulated soldiers.
See, that’s the point. Election Day, not Veterans’ Day, was the genuine opportunity to honor the nation’s veterans – many of whom are still deployed in the perpetual combat zones of the Greater Middle East. Only as expected, the American people let their veterans down. In the 24/7 media and political conversation surrounding the mid-term elections, no one, and I mean no one, took the time to ask the questions that really matter to veterans: what are they being asked to accomplish in the world? Are they achieving their missions? Are those missions even achievable? What is the end-state, or, you know, will these eternal wars ever end? No, Americans didn’t demand an answer to these questions and their elected representatives were just as happy not to engage with such complex issues.
Apathy is the name of the American game when it comes to foreign policy, war, and "peace" – whatever that means anymore. The public – utterly detached from an all-volunteer military consisting of fewer than 1% of Americans – and the Congress like it that way. It’s far easier – and strangely comforting, it seems – to throw a yellow ribbon on a car, pick up a soldier’s check, or loudly belt out the Star Spangled Banner at some sporting event, rather than actually follow US foreign policy and demand accountability. Attending an antiwar march or calling one’s representatives to discuss America’s wars, well, that’s hard! So much easier is it to "like" a sentimental meme on Facebook or briefly thank a stranger in the airport.
This author recognizes how cynical this all sounds. Truth is, though, it’s not meant to be offensive. Many of those thanking vets genuinely mean well. It’s just that all of that adulation isn’t helping to extract America’s troopers from the longest – and probably least decisive – wars in the nation’s history. We, the veterans and active duty soldiers who’ve served tour after ambiguous tour, deserve an engaged populace. We deserve a citizenry that demands answers to the real question before us: what, precisely, is the US accomplishing in the Greater Middle East? The short answer, for the few of us who seriously study this, is almost nothing.
The results of America’s ongoing wars are visible and publicly available. US military interventionism has cost 7,000 soldiers’ lives, upwards of half a million local deaths, $5.6 trillion (and counting), 10 million refugees, and an entire region in worse shape than we found it. Veterans are regularly touted as having "defended" the People and the country; only, there’s little evidence to bolster this vacuous argument. US State Department data has long demonstrated that worldwide terror attacks have increased dramatically since 2001 (even if there was a slight dip from 2016-17). Furthermore, even counterinsurgency gurus in the military and civilian policy machines recognize that US bombing, drone strikes, raids, and military occupations tend only to further enflame anti-American sentiment and often create new crops of "terrorists." The whole enterprise is nothing if not counterproductive.
Which brings us back to the Veterans’ Day masquerade, and this veteran’s plea: please get engaged in US foreign policy. Even if you or your family members do not directly serve in the Armed Forces, commit yourselves, on this holiday weekend, to education and interest in the ongoing American wars. Remember, the executive branch, whether led by Trump "conservatives" or Obama "liberals," counts on your apathy in order to wage unilateral global combat without congressional oversight or citizen protest. Refuse to acquiesce to this absurdity – it is killing what’s left of the republic.
So this year, on this day, try something truly brave, and different: be a citizen. Thank a veteran in your local community, sure, but then head home and open a credible periodical. Turn to the foreign policy section and start reading. Think; ask tough questions. Only then will you have genuinely honored millions of American vets.
Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen