The Best Defense

Q: 'Just what did we fight and bleed for?' A:

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.

The U.S. Army/Flickr

The Best Defense

Why I don't tell people anymore that I am in the military: I'm sick of 'the questions'

By Crispin Burke
Best Defense department of civil-military affairs

For my first few years in the military, I used to tell strangers the complete truth about my chosen profession. But after a few discomfiting conversations, I decided to hide my military service from strangers. When asked what I do for a living, I sometimes claim that I'm unemployed, or even that I'm a reporter. There are times I'll claim to be an accountant. Admittedly, the ruse is difficult to keep up at times. Not many accountants can console fellow air travelers during a foul-weather approach into the Syracuse airport by noting that the ILS Runway 10 approach can bring an aircraft down to two hundred feet above ground level before the pilot can proceed visually.

It's a little white lie, sure, but it staves off a lot of awkward situations. In fact, I wish I'd used it more often.

While veterans generally appreciate not being treated as poorly as their Vietnam-era predecessors, today's hero-worship can make many service members uneasy. Without a personal connection to the military, many Americans base their perceptions of military service a stoic figure in a recruiting commercial, or a valiant hero in a Hollywood movie. But no service member could ever measure up to a Hollywood concoction. We're all just as fallible as anyone else. Even the greatest heroes -- Salvatore Giunta, Leroy Petry, and Dakota Meyer -- have accepted our nation's highest honor with candor and humility.

And while a kind word or a smile is certainly welcome, the lavish praise and generosity heaped on to service members may be breeding an unwarranted side effect among younger vets: self-righteous entitlement.

Still another segment of the public looks upon service members as hapless victims, and unfortunately for many, this is all too true. But some erroneously believe that all veterans invariably suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; while others presume that we've all been subjected to years' worth of brainwashing. To some, a young man or woman shipping off to Basic Training might as well be going to the Gulag. I once visited my old high school and revealed that I had just been commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army. One woman gasped, covering her mouth, "How much longer do you have left?" Responding, "As long as I like," probably did little to ease her mind. (And, in truth, my blog will probably get me fired long before that.)

The fact of the matter is that I've become a better person for my service in the military. And even though the job is not without its bouts of frustration, it still has its enjoyable moments. Plus, it pays the bills. How many people can do that these days?

Perhaps most important of all, many Vets keep quiet about their service to avoid...the questions.

"My friend's cousin Steve is in the Army or the Navy or something like that. Do you know him?" (Sorry, missed the FRAGO that designated one day as "Everyone in the Armed Forces gets together and introduces themselves day.")

"Is war really like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3?" (Never played COD:MW3. But rest assured, this video game is about as hard-hitting and realistic as it gets.)

"There are girls in the Army? When did they start letting girls in the Army?" (You'd be surprised at how often this one comes up.)

"What's Iraq like?" (Do you want metrics? I seem to have forgotten my Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides.)

Which brings me to my point, so eloquently spoken by one of my fellow bloggers, "What do you vets want"? Try this on for size: Most vets simply want to be treated like human beings. In other words, stop confusing the individual with the institution.

Strangers may think nothing of dumping their ill-conceived sentiments regarding foreign affairs on the nearest service member. But that veteran sitting next to you on the plane is just as responsible for foreign policy as the average AIG employee is for the financial meltdown, or a doctor is for ballooning medical costs.

You see, most service members would rather not talk about work during their off-time. But this has little to do with the horrors of war. After working twelve to fourteen hour days, often without weekends, the last thing any service member will want to talk about is, well, more work. I realize that the institution is fascinating because, for many, it's a mystery. But there are times I wish I could just hide that portion and force strangers to look at me as a regular person.

We may wear the same uniforms, but we're an organization of 2.3 million individuals. Some are parents, some aren't. Some like baseball, others football, others may not care much for sports at all. Some re-enact Civil War battles, some play World of Warcraft. In an organization 2.3 million strong, you might even find the occasional brony.

What do we want?

We neither want to be looked up to nor down upon. More often than not, we just want our fellow Americans to look past the uniform and see the person inside of us.

Don't tell anyone, but Maj. Crispin J. Burke is a U.S. Army officer who has served in Iraq (which is hot), Fort Bragg, Honduras, Fort Drum (which is not), and Germany (which is foggy and used to invade its neighbors on rainy Thursdays). He is a contributor to Small Wars Journal, and flies his own blog, Wings Over Iraq. Insert standard disclaimer here about not reflecting anyone's opinions.