I think that as the United States leaves Iraq and shuffles toward the exit in Afghanistan, we need to think about how to answer that question when veterans of our wars there pose it.
This is a difficult one for me, because I think the war in Afghanistan was the correct response to the 9/11 attacks, but was mishandled for years after that, and I think the war in Iraq was an unnecessary and very expensive distraction from that response. Also, we may well see further violence in both countries that will raise questions about exactly what we achieved.
Also, today's vets tend to have good BS detectors. Recently I walked past a small monument to graduates of a high school who were lost in the Spanish-American War. It stated that they died "for humanity." I don't think so.
I think my response would be along these lines -- but I'd welcome your thoughts. "When your country called, you answered. You did your duty on a mission your country gave to you. In our system, thankfully, the military does not get to pick and choose what missions it will undertake -- that is decided by the officials elected by the people. Those officials are not always right, but they are the leaders we chose to make that decision. No matter what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have the thanks of a grateful nation for answering the call."
Is that enough? I don't know. If someone said that to me, I suspect I would think, Yeah, well where was everyone else? Why did my friends die and yours didn't?
I don't know. Help me out here.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.