I’ve heard this phrase many times. Sometimes it’s directed at a particular person—say, a man wearing a Vietnam veteran baseball cap—and sometimes it’s directed more broadly, as when an airport announcement comes over the PA, aimed towards any and all men and women in uniform who might be passengers. But it’s a phrase you will only find in this country, because the sentiment is so distinctly American. But we don’t just say “Thank you for your service”; veterans’ discounts, special programs, and commercial perks—from free haircuts on Veterans Day to discounted cell phone contracts—allow companies to show how they “support the troops.” Thanks to the Veterans ID Card Act of 2015, vets now have an easy way to prove their status, should they want a discount at Home Depot or Applebee’s.
All of this is also very recent. Its origins are unclear, but it starts popping up regularly in print in the late ’90s, and even then not only in reference to military veterans, but also to retiring politicians. Its appearance just then reflects an adjustment of America’s relationship with its military, and with the idea of military service in general. Prior to this point, servicemen were thanked by the Commander in Chief, not members of the public. Even in 1996, Bill Clinton wrote to Bob Dole, “On behalf of a grateful America, as you retire from the Senate, I thank you for your service,” suggesting that it was his political career, not his period in uniform, that earned the thanks.
The US has long taken a distinctly reverential position towards its military. The service flag hung by families of servicemen—with a blue star for each family member in uniform and a gold star for each fallen family member—goes back to 1917. The idea of “Gold Star” families was a response to the First World War. But no such special recognition was given to families during the Civil War, when the loss was massively more widespread (and thus, less worthy of special notice). It took a conflict in which comparatively few Americans served and died to make a special symbol for that loss necessary (as well as the first war in the newsreel age).
Even so, veterans of the Great War—before it was the first of two—didn’t come back to a world of lunch-counter waitresses and cab drivers thanking them for their service. Being called up was a matter of course for men of fighting age, if their nation was at war. “Back when citizenship included (in theory) a responsibility to contribute to the country’s defense, those who served were merely doing their duty,” as Andrew Bacevich wrote:
Gratuities offered in return for wartime service tended to be belated and even grudging. During the Great Depression, Bonus Marchers—impoverished World War I veterans petitioning for early payment of a promised $500 bonus—learned this the hard way: In 1932 United States Army regulars under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur used tanks, tear gas and bayonets to send them packing. The following year President Franklin Roosevelt let it be known that “no person, because he wore a uniform, must therefore be placed in a special class of beneficiaries.”
The attitude to the military has changed since then. At least in part to avoid such disgruntled veterans after the Second World War, the GI Bill was passed in 1944, rewarding veterans with both pensions and opportunities for education, bonuses that today serve as inducements for many to enlist.
And such inducements have become increasingly necessary. Most of America’s military conflicts since the second world war have been undertaken with vague objectives and unclear outcomes, without an end in sight. And if it’s harder to get behind these kinds of conflicts than it was to get behind defeating Hitler, it’s also been harder to get behind the troops doing the fighting.
The nadir of respect for the military came with the Vietnam War. Although stories of veterans being spat on were apocryphal, the sense among vets that they were disrespected lingered. Vietnam veterans were an uncomfortable reminder of a conflict that much of the country wished to shove down the memory hole. In fiction, the war served as a source for movies during the 1970s and 1980s, many emphasizing the figure of the troubled vet. Movies also served to keep present the issue of the soldiers still MIA in Southeast Asia. The filmic heroes who went to save them were always rogue or “off the books”; the message was that the government didn’t care. That no one ever thanked John Rambo for his service was exactly the point. But Vietnam service also lingered through its absence, as those who had shirked the call, like Bill Clinton, rose in the world.
The end of the draft removed any expectation of public figures to have served, even in peacetime. And so, when the first Gulf War came around—America’s first conflict without a draft, the invasion of Grenada notwithstanding—the public was ready for a new attitude towards the troops. The Gulf War also had the benefit of being short, victorious, and with no lingering qualms about My Lai or dropping napalm on civilians. There were few American casualties—and no MIA left behind to remember—so it was the perfect moment for people to start thanking troops. And people did: groups like the Maine Troop Greeters emerged, who show up to cheer the men and women in uniform who are arriving back stateside after tours overseas. This shift was significant; I don’t recall my father or any other men I saw in uniform being thanked in the 1980s, so I still see it as a little odd.
Today, we’ve been at war for more than 15 years, including an ongoing conflict in Afghanistan that many Americans don’t even realize still continues. The thanking is everywhere, but it’s also nowhere in particular; what particular service are the troops being thanked for? There is a disconnect. With no draft, those who serve are volunteers, and come from a distinctly narrow segment of society; as General John Kelly said after losing his son in Afghanistan, “America as a whole is certainly not at war. Not as a country. Not as a people. Today, only a tiny fraction—less than a percent—shoulder the burden of fear and sacrifice, and they shoulder it for the rest of us.”
From people outside that tiny fraction of the country, “Thank you for your service” can come off as glib; however sincere it might be, you hear it most from those who have the least to do with the military. They haven’t served, you can almost be certain; and one suspects they wouldn’t want their children to serve either. “Thanking” those who do feels like condescension to those who do the work they would never deign to, like tipping the doorman. Of course, what he does is SO important, they say, and we’re SO grateful, but it’s not like they’d become a doorman themselves, or envisage such a career for their son.
We see this patronizing dichotomy towards the military with a particular clarity in popular culture. On television, shows like NCIS—and its various spawn—depict the military in a distinctly positive light, even if what they show bears little relation to what the navy actually does. (Glamorous pursuits of international criminals don’t actually feature in many naval careers!) But in shows that are not about the military—shows whose characters don’t occupy that distinctly narrow segment of society—the prospect of serving, of choosing to “shoulder the burden of fear and sacrifice” is consistently depicted with horror (when it’s not treated like a punch line). In Blackish, joining the army was joked about as something that was the result of bad SAT scores, not something to which someone would aspire. Family Ties suggested it as an option for people with no skills or aptitude. (Alex’s friend Skippy signs up.)
It can be hard to remember that the ticker-tape parades on V-E Day and V-J Day were not about thanking soldiers; they were about celebrating, together, the end of a conflict that had affected everyone. Everyone had gone through rations, war bond sales; some had even survived an attack on US soil. People had feared a foreign invasion. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, are such a vague background hum to daily life, by contrast, that it’s possible to assume they’ve ended—as many have—because there would be no such society-wide relief at the prospect. How could the war end if, for you, it never started?
Tour of Babel is a regular Popula column in which we translate the world’s words that can’t be translated, the phrases and expressions that don’t travel (but that also, it turns out, do).