They rocked it out on the Washington Mall yesterday, with the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, headlining and a host of no-lesser lights: Foo Fighters, Rihanna and more. People streamed in to DC for it because it was all free, a gig — the Concert for Valor — put on for Veterans Day, the equivalent of Remembrance Day, and all organised by … Starbucks. Yes, Starbucks. Your least favourite coffee chain has got its patriotism on, with megalomaniac CEO Howard Schultz identifying mochafrappacinos with military courage. Mind you, they’re not alone. Hudson News, the last major newsagent chain in the country, now has an “option” to make a donation to veterans’ welfare with every purchase. And there’s a dozen other places like that.
The old Red Planet poster — won’t it be great when people get all the resources they need, and the air force has to have a cake sale to buy a bomber? — has come true at last, well half-true. Veterans have always got discounts on certain essential services, and ring-fenced healthcare. Now increasing numbers of hotel etc chains are offering special rates. Getting on a plane, etc, you hear “thank you for your service” as military personnel pass by. And Starbucks’ concert is not the end of it for them. Schultz has co-authored a book on “valour”, based on interviews with veterans for their insights into life, character and of course what they can teach us about business. The thing is on display at every Starbucks across the land. Maybe the green-and-black livery will soon go khaki.
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This “thank you for your service” ethic has got out of control, and a lot of people realise it, but no one knows what to do about it. It’s a classic case of a sort of ritual excess, a loop that cultures can sometimes get stuck in. The courtesy rituals of old Eastern potentates, the potlatch of Pacific Northwest tribes — who would destroy their canoes, fishing gear, etc, as a way of paying courtesy tribute to rival groups — they’re all in that genre. Once something like that starts, it’s very difficult for any one individual to buy out of it, so on it rolls. In the US now, it has escalated from the ritual “thank you for your service” to serving military boarding planes, etc, said by airline stewards, ticker checkers etc, to include all vets. ‘”Thank you for your former service” is the slightly odd greeting.
Increasingly such greetings are offered by members of the general public spontaneously, which actually starts to chew up time, crowded sidewalks, etc. It must have been like this in the Cultural Revolution, when for a while every encounter had to begin with an exchange about the virtues of Chairman Mao before getting down to business. As David Finkel notes in his book Thank You For Your Service, most serving military hate this stuff, bearing it through clenched teeth to be polite — and that’s especially so for those with combat experience.
It’s also a practice which has started to become a little coercive. The last time I passed on the opportunity to “make a donation to veterans” at the end of a purchase, I got a sharp intake of breath. And I have seen a whole airport lounge slowly break into applause for a number of serving military deplaning, with laggard applauders getting narky looks from those joining in. Why has this come about? A hyper-militarised society would be one answer, but it would be the wrong one. In fact the proportion of Americans in uniform has been declining for decades, from the time in the ’50s and ’60s when a form of the draft persisted, to the recent reductions in military size, in line with the Rumsfeld-Obama process whereby the military is reconstructed as a high-tech fighting force.
But of course this steady reduction occurred at the same time as the US came under attack on 9/11, and then went to a draining, dissatisfying war. In the ’50s and ’60s, everyone knew someone in uniform, had someone from their family involved in maintaining a vast empire. Now, though the empire persists, soldiers have become rarer (though still hugely more visible than in other Western societies), and the wars themselves more distant, partly because they are vexing and meaningless. Military obeisance arises in part out of gratitude, in part out of guilt, but largely to build a bridge to connect with the meaning of these wars, or to make meaning out of them, and then have it flow back into everyday life.
Soldiers and vets seem to hate so much of it, not merely because of the hypocrisy — thanks for service would be to better fund services for those emerging with PTSD and other problems — but also because it masks the truth about the military in the American life. Many of those joining are doing so less out of duty than as a last gasp way to get an education, or to get out of persistently crappy situations (including a large number of women who do it to get out of abusive situations). That “deal'”makes clear the literally lethal character of poverty — some of the kids killed in Iraq or Afghanistan went into the forces to get an apprenticeship, knowing they were rolling the dice.
But it’s also a demeaning and debilitating position for a republic to find itself in. Free societies shouldn’t be beholden to their military, and shouldn’t shape themselves round its needs and demands, nor let its necessarily special character determine wider social life. What comes pretty quickly with that is an inequality, a weakening of citizenship along lines of preference — for the young, able-bodied, for the warriors — and something approaching disdain for others. It’s a measure of the power of the idea that so many progressives get caught up in the idea — Springsteen et al — in a desperate attempt to emphasise that their anti-militarism stance is not an anti-soldier/anti-vet stance. In fact, Springsteen is getting heat for playing an anti-draft song — Creedence’s Fortunate Son — at the concert.
But standing up for a full and free citizenship demands more. It means pushing back against a situation in which the character of daily life becomes determined by its orientation to the military. Which involves saying that veterans should get all they need, as citizens, but no special treatment per se. Which, in the current era, in the US, would take, well, valour.