My Veteran's Day Dilemma

I’ve mentioned in previous articles that I was a Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy. That’s the guys and gals that drive and navigate ships. On one of my deployments my unit was responsible for oil platform defense. We guarded the Iraqi oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. There were two: Khawr Al Amaya and Al Basrah Oil Terminal; affectionately known as KAAOT and ABOT respectively. It was a fun mission – chasing away boats and ships that got too close, working with coalition forces and training the Iraqi Navy. I met so many different people from other Navies and other countries and got a perspective of the world I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else. The sailors that I worked with were awesome guys; great at their job, fun to be around and talk to. One day, someone asked “who owns these platforms”. “Oh, that’s classified” someone else answered. That’s where my unease with our mission began.

What were we guarding? Whose profits were we protecting? Did any of that money make it back to the Iraqi people, who have long been victims of dictatorial rule and subsequently the chaos of ongoing conflict? Try googling it. None of us knew. That bothered me.

When we came home, we were greeted by friends and family alike with welcome. My family complemented me on my accomplishment, strangers thanked me for my service during holidays and I got to take advantage of military discounts at movie theatres in the area. Many people seemed eager to show their appreciation for what I did, for my service and sacrifice. I wondered if any of THEM knew the answer to wear the oil money was going.

A few years later, I met another sailor that had just returned from Afghanistan. At that time the Army augmented their own forces with Navy Sailors because there weren’t enough soldiers to fight the wars (go figure). I asked him what made the greatest impression on him in his time there. His answer: “all the fucking civilian contractors dude”. He told me about how this one guy was getting paid $11k per day to lay cables (at least according to that contractor). Later I would read that the ratio of contractors to servicemembers there was something like 8-1. So, we were hiding just how many people were in the fight.

I can’t help but feel like this culture of hero worship comes with the expectation of accepting that what we did was right, both as servicemembers and as a country. “Thank you for your service and for everything you’ve done”. But what have we done?  I didn’t volunteer to protect someone else’s oil profits. My friend didn’t volunteer to work with civilian contractors who made 10x more money than he did working side by side on similar ventures. We volunteered to fight bad guys, to keep America safe. But increasingly so I began to doubt whether or not that’s what I did. I’m sure other people in the military had a hand in protecting the homeland – in “taking the fight to the enemy”. But I didn’t feel like that was me. It made me (and still makes me) uncomfortable accepting praise for it.

I know that some people will say “you volunteered to serve your country, and you deserve our thanks”. Still others will say “don’t blame the warrior, he didn’t choose the fight”. Those phrases certainly sound good, and I’m by no means suggesting we go back the era of Vietnam where veterans were spat on, cursed at and labelled baby killers after coming home from a traumatic and difficult conflict. But “the mission” is a big reason why I joined. So how do you separate me from that. How do you concentrate on my noble reason for doing something, and ignore what I did and for whom? I have a hard time reconciling this. To be honest I still don’t really have the answer.

It’s true. Many of us volunteered out of a sense of patriotism, a sense of belonging to the greater good; and I still believe that there IS a greater good. I believe in the Western values of representative government, free speech and the pursuit of the just rule of law. I still believe in service to your country, and I’ve now expanded (not replaced) my definition of this to peaceful protest and the fight for civil liberties as well as government service. I think there’s definitely a fine line in taking a hard look inward and recognizing our past since, and questioning our right to exist as a country. I think it’s a disturbing trend that many of our youth seem to be doing the latter. Somewhere in there, though, I think that there’s also a blurred line between thanking someone for volunteering to service, and assuming that their service was something that can’t be questioned.

We’re now 16 years into Afghanistan and 13 years into the Iraq war (Yes, we’re still involved in both. Let’s not pretend otherwise) and are actually expanding our “war on terror” well into the continent of Africa, with over 100 special operations missions going on every day. Maybe that fight is the right one to have, maybe it isn’t. Certainly, there are lots of people out there who want to see America fall to its knees. And we need to protect ourselves. Why that is so, how we do it and who our enemies are is way beyond the scope of this article. I’m just here to say I’m not sure I deserve praise. I certainly don’t like the implication that everything I did and sacrificed for was noble and good and made America better or safer. Some of probably was. Some of it probably wasn’t. That’s what makes me uneasy about the culture of hero worship in the US.

I feel like along with it there’s this implication that anyone who’s against the wars, or questions our government (with or without animosity), or anything else counter to the mission is labelled as un-American.  Though that term isn’t used, the implication is there. Not standing for the national anthem is somehow against the troops that volunteered to defend (and die for) the right of free speech that allows people to do it.  Advocating for gun legislation is somehow against what troops fought to defend. The idea of looking back through history to determine whether or not some events happened as they were taught to us is undermining the values that our troops stand for by questioning the American way. “People died for your right to do this and do that” is constantly used as a counter-argument to actions that seem un-patriotic.

Maybe un-patriotic is the wrong term. Maybe tasteless is the right one. As in saying that someone’s sacrifice to fight a never-ending war may have been in vain. That statement can seem as cruel as it is tasteless. Especially to the surviving families of the fallen servicemember. The implication is that, instead of questioning why they died, we should thank that veteran for his or her sacrifice and deem the loss of their life a noble one. That we, as a country, and they as a servicemember, did not have a choice other than to send them to war and sacrifice their life for our own good. What’s tasteless to ME about THIS, is that we’re essentially comparing military service with sacrificing live human beings in the worship of gods that demand their blood.

If we don’t send someone to fight, sacrifice and die for us, the gods will get angry and send our enemies to destroy us. That 18-year-old kid is our sacrifice. Their debilitating disability, high divorce rate, suicide or death at the hands of our enemies means that we will be safer and better off. Does it? But, the thought goes that THEY volunteered. THEY knew what THEY were getting into. So, THEIR death is a noble one. Except that maybe THEY didn’t. Maybe YOU and I volunteered THEM by our collective ignorance of world events. WE allowed our government to dictate to US what foreign policy should be. WE can’t tell the difference between actions that are productive projections of force and fighting to line the pockets of military contractors (and I do think there’s a difference). Maybe WE, as uninformed citizens, are to blame for what our veterans go through. Maybe THAT’s what we should be reflecting on, during veteran’s day.