Publicly walking in my Army uniform makes me very uncomfortable. The awkward stares as I quietly enjoy lunch, the occasional drunkard who warns me of some government super-soldier program, and the self-righteous student hoping to lecture me on the morality of war mean that wearing my uniform around Cambridge tends to make for an interesting day. The phrase “thank you for your service,” however, presents the largest source of discomfort by far.
When someone confronts me with the phrase “thank you for your service,” my mind freezes. Do I respond to this with another “thank you”? Should I silently nod, or would that come off as rude? Or should I tell them the truth: that I’m a cadet, not a soldier. I’ve never been deployed. I’ve never spent more than a month at a fort, nor do I drill with the National Guard or Army Reserve. Hell, I don’t even know the Cadet Creed.
When thanked for my service, I feel guilty. Guilty of stealing attention away from those who’ve already served yet remain forgotten. At first glance, such a claim might seem foolish. We’ve got Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and tons of monuments dedicated to service personnel, past and present. Military discounts are abundant: even Ben & Jerry’s offers one (up to 15 percent off, if you’re interested). But despite these benefits, military personnel often find themselves unfairly blamed by the public as responsible for the unpopular conflicts they’re sent to fight in.
As the armed forces continue to face force reductions, the community of veterans continuously becomes smaller. Technological advances and the shift towards an all-volunteer force enabled the U.S. to maintain global military supremacy with fewer troops. As a result, a smaller proportion of Americans have served now than ever before. Those who now serve disproportionately come from military families, making the cost of war a distant thought from the daily considerations of most of the population at large.
Nevertheless, despite their dwindling numbers, military personnel have found themselves in a constant state of war since Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Terrorists in September 2001. With the ever-expanding War on Terror and growing military commitments to allies across the globe, our military finds itself stretched thin. Yet despite America’s increased military role in maintaining the current international system, years of war have drained the public’s support for interventions abroad.
In terms of public opinion, military personnel find themselves at the center of America’s contentious foreign policy. On one hand, our service personnel enjoy unparalleled respect. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in America’s armed forces; only 3 percent expressed “very little” or “none” at all. To this day, no other government group receives as much widespread respect as those in uniform.
Yet when it comes to the wars our troops are sent to fight, most Americans find them morally dubious at best. By mid-2014, 71 percent of Americans declared that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t worth the cost. As of June 2015, 42 percent of Americans viewed the Afghan war as a mistake. Following a decade of nonstop conflicts, the American public has grown tired of watching the young spill their blood in what most believe are hopeless quagmires.
So what about the individuals sent to kill and die in these so-called hopeless quagmires? How strange to be held in such high esteem, yet be sent to fight wars condemned by the same individuals who laud your service when they greet you on the street? If your comrades-in-arms lay down their lives for unpopular causes, was their blood spilled in vain, or does the public’s adoration of your uniform somehow make the sacrifice worth something?
I understand that individuals mean well when they thank others for their service. After all, a little gratitude goes a long way. Nevertheless, there’s something off-putting about our willingness to worship a uniform whilst ignoring those who wear it. We’ve been at war for almost 15 years, yet we continuously separate the military from the civilian world that sends its soldiers to fight and die almost as an afterthought.
As a public, we’ve grown accustomed to the image of the stoic soldier. In worshiping this idol, we’ve forgotten the human cost behind the wars we wage. Soldiers are more than uniforms; they’re people, citizens whose lives continue long after they’ve retired from military service. I’m not arguing against respecting the uniform, nor am I advocating for individuals to abstain from critiquing military policy. Rather, I simply want society to separate the wars soldiers fight from the soldiers themselves.
Sometime this Wednesday I’ll be headed to MIT in uniform. Some will see a representation of freedom. Others will see an embodiment of cruel American power. A few might thank me for what I haven’t yet done. I wonder if anyone will look past all that and see the name on my uniform: Williams.
Nathan L. Williams '18, a current Army ROTC cadet, is a government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.