Elizabeth Samet, West Point’s Professor of English, had a thoughtful op-ed (read the whole thing) on Bloomberg yesterday that convinced me it is time to return to the blog after an inexcusably long hiatus (thanks to everyone else on KoW for keeping it real). Samet captures the ritualistic dynamic of the American civilian-soldier interaction perfectly:
…today, a woman or man in military uniform dining in a restaurant, sitting on a bench in Central Park or walking up Broadway constitutes a spectacle. I have witnessed this firsthand whenever one of my military colleagues and I have taken West Point cadets to the city to attend a performance or to visit a library or museum. My civilian clothes provide camouflage as I watch my uniformed friends bombarded by gratitude.
These meetings between soldier and civilian turn quickly into street theater. The soldier is recognized with a handshake. There’s often a request for a photograph or the tracing of a six-degrees-of-separation genealogy: “My wife’s second cousin is married to a guy in the 82nd Airborne.” Each encounter concludes with a ritual utterance: “Thank you for your service.”
I had almost forgotten the awkwardness I felt every time I went through one of these encounters after two years in London, when the only time I donned my uniform was a graduation dinner at Sandhurst at which I was a guest. Then I went returned to my day job in uniform post-PhD and was thrown violently back into the maelstrom of American culture with my compatriots’ unnerving willingness to talk to perfect strangers so unthinkable on the Tube or in Heathrow.
I have yet to figure out the “appropriate” response to the “thank you for your service” refrain and I fear I live up to the title of this post. I am admittedly surprised to hear it personally as much as I do, living so close to an Army post where I’m hardly novel. I can understand it somewhat better in major airports where service members in combat fatigues are clearly returning from Iraq or Afghanistan on mid-tour leave, but at a convenience store within 15 minutes’ drive of the front gate? It makes me wonder just how wide the civil-military gap has become, if even those civilians right outside the post do not relate to those of us on the other side of the fence (or we to them). Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t want to be ungrateful for some degree of appreciation for what I have chosen to do in my career. Words, however heartfelt, though, come across as meaningless when divorced from the political process that results in our deployments (the yellow ribbons on cars at the height of the Iraq war bothered me far more…). I would much rather have a more engaged electorate than a random handshake and “thank you.” Am I being unrealistic in my hopes?
So with this random bit of musing, let me open it up to the readership in the comments section. Is there an appropriate response to this awkward, if well-intended, exchange? Or, is Samet right in her conclusion:
If our theater of gratitude provoked introspection or led to a substantive dialogue between giver and recipient, I would celebrate it. But having witnessed these bizarre, fleeting scenes, I have come to believe that they are a poor substitute for something more difficult and painful — a conversation about what war does to the people who serve and to the people who don’t. There are contradictions inherent in being, as many Americans claim to be, for the troops but against the war. Most fail to consider the social responsibilities such a stance commits them to fulfilling in the coming decades.