In my hometown newspaper the obituary page featured a key to the symbols indicating who among the deceased was a veteran. A pound sign indicated First World War service. Two pound signs indicated the Second World War — a bit of artistry there. The asterisk was set aside for the Spanish American War veterans. (Lest you think I’m nearing retirement age, the last of these, Jones Morgan of the 10th U.S. Cavalry, died in 1993). Other characters indicated service in Korea or Vietnam. No symbols were reserved for any other occupations or life experiences. There were no other special recognitions, apart from what was written in the notices themselves. Being a veteran was singular; apart from anything else, the paper wanted you to know that the deceased had served.
We know our veterans. Our troops have always been “us” and not “them.” We respect them and what they have done, we recognize our debt to them. This is reflected in polls asking which American professions are the most respected which place the military near the top with doctors, and politicians near the bottom with used car salesmen. In some societies the military is a class apart, sometimes an oppressor, a ruler. But this is not the American way. In the 1990s some academics fretted about a growing “civil military gap,” a cultural and political void between those who served in the military and those who did not. Some feared that one day the gap would grow so large that there might be a threat of a coup d’etat. But the gap they identified was not between the American people and its military, it was between the broader American cultural values that the military reflects and that of the academics themselves, who mistakenly assumed that their views were broadly representative of the United States as a whole. One didn’t hear much from that quarter after 9/11.
Our country invests a lot to see that there are as few service-member obituaries as possible. We try to make sure that those who serve in our wars live to become veterans. Negative press reports notwithstanding, we have invested in making sure our troops have the finest state-of-the-art body armor in the world. Because the extremities are harder to protect than the head and torso, most serious wounds are in the legs and arms. But the body armor is so effective at keeping people alive that troops have survived blasts that have taken most of their limbs that would have in the past taken the rest of them as well.
The war in Iraq not only has the lowest death rate of any of America’s wars, but those who are wounded have much greater odds of survival. A 2004 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that only 10 percent of wounds in Iraq were mortal. In the Vietnam War this rate was 24 percent, and in World War II 30 percent. Our combat wounded get better help faster, from medics, from Forward Surgical Teams, and Combat Support Hospitals. For those whose wounds are so severe they have to be evacuated to the United States, the average time for the trip home has dropped from 45 days in the Vietnam era to less than four days. None of this comes without a cost, but it is a cost our society is willing to pay.
For most, military service is a short period, a few years. But they may be dramatic and formative years, very significant for the life to follow. Some may look back on those as their best years. Others may not want to remember them. Most return from war unscathed if not unchanged, others with varying degrees of wounds, some physical, some emotional, or both. The experience may shape and define one’s future, or not. But as a veteran you can be guaranteed a spot in the hallowed ground of Arlington or another of the national cemeteries. You can salute the flag (rather than placing your hand over your heart), whether in uniform or not. More importantly you will have the satisfaction of having done something exceptional, something you share with over 23 million Americans. (Only 7.2 percent of American men are veterans, and if you are a female vet, you are in a more exclusive club of 1.8 million, or six tenths of a percent of the US population.) And you will enjoy the admiration of a country that recognizes your sacrifices and is grateful.
Veterans, it is your day. Show the pride you have earned. Accept the respect you deserve. Share your stories if it suits you. Or just enjoy the freedom you have preserved as part of the continually renewing heritage of the American armed forces. And thanks for taking on the hardest job in the world.
– NRO contributor James S. Robbins is the director of the International Security Studies Program at Trinity Washington, senior fellow in national security at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point.