Thank You For Your Service by Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson

We hear it everywhere these days–five words directed towards women and men in military uniform, but also directed towards “vets”–people whose histories include “time served” in some branch of the armed services.  TV show hosts say those five words before adding, “Let’s give a hand to the brave people in uniform who keep us safe.”  Government officials shout it out in military gatherings, “Thank you for your service to the greatest democracy in the world.”

School systems partake in the spirit of it all by surprising an elementary or middle school-aged child during a reading or math class with a father’s (rarely a mother’s) sudden appearance–back home from the war zone safe and sound–at least for now.  Airlines “support our troops” by inviting men and women in uniform (usually wearing army fatigues) to board their flight before the rest of us do.  It’s a trite phrase, “Thank you for your service,” repeated over and over again much like, “Have a nice day.”  What exactly are we thanking our men and women in uniform for?

Some would say our brave young women and men keep us (citizens of the USA) safe from those who would take “freedom” (our way of life, our values, whatever it is we hold dear) from us.  In other words, those in military service are our saviors.  They give up their lives (or are willing to do so) in order that we may live.  In mythology, stories with this theme abound.  Who of us is not familiar with the Christian story/myth telling about Jesus dying for our sins so that we may live eternally–free from death, the consequences of our sin?  So, thank you vets for dying (or, at least being willing to die) so that we can live.

Perhaps thanking people in military uniform for their service is a way of ameliorating an epoch of our dark history.  When Vietnam veterans returned home from their stint fighting an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, they were spat upon by their fellow American citizens.  So, thank you vets–we’re sorry about our past behavior–we’d like to apologize and thank you for your service, nonetheless.

Some people have a pacifist ideology and think war should never happen.  Well, “thank you for your service” is a way to distinguish between the soldier (military) and the person (human being)–much like some Christians today who attempt to distinguish between the “sin” and the “sinner.”  We love the sinner (so they say), but we hate the sin (homosexuality, abortion, whatever).  So, we are given an “out.”  We can hate the war, but love the soldier even if the soldier is doing stuff that is abominable–often under the guise of “liberating” a country which almost always causes mayhem and death on a mass scale.

Soldiers (as well as the public) may not even be aware of the military’s agenda (as in Vietnam) or maybe soldiers (and the rest of us) are duped into thinking that peace is attainable through violent means.  Just what are we thanking service members for when their very presence in a power-hungry (or misguided, at best) institution (U.S. Military) is complicit with carrying out unspeakable destruction–landscape, animals, and people, all under the guise of peace?

I have never understood why countries are willing to go to war (either a war of aggression or defense), risking the lives of populations, for the sake of honor, freedom, and justice, however those terms get defined.  The end result is always death.  In order to make “death by war” appealing, we’ve had to immerse ourselves in particular stories (myths) about the glories of fighting and dying in battle for our country/tribe/nation.  Stories inform us.  They speak to us on a level that shape our worldview–how we understand ourselves in relation to the wider world.  Individually and collectively, we absorb the “truths” of those mythologies we embrace so it’s no surprise, really, to find our citizens extolling the virtues of war as “the” way to obtain life, liberty, and justice for all.

Unlike Veteran’s Day, when all service members (past and present) are honored, Memorial Day is a time when we (as a nation) pause to remember the sacrifice of those who have paid the ultimate price while “serving” their country.  For many Americans, this is a sacred time, fitting nicely into what sociologist Robert Bellah (1927-2013) called America’s “civil religion.”  He argued that we have created sacred symbols drawn from our national history which have permeated the fabric of American culture and public life.  (Those symbols are not entirely divorced from our Judeo-Christian heritage.)  So, our beliefs (ideology based on stories/myths) about war (we can save ourselves and others by fighting and dying for those beliefs) has taken root and provides the glue that gives a degree of cohesion to our country.

We have Memorial Day parades (ritual) with American flags (symbol), marching bands (often playing tunes associated with war), and speeches that sound like preachers drawing parallels between the ancient Israelites fighting an enemy (with God on their side) and America (also with God on its side) battling “godless” communism and those “out there” who hate our freedoms.  By tapping into the structure of religion, national leaders use a people’s need for community to further their own agendas–agendas that are rooted in the “belief” that war ultimately brings healing and peace–at least, for the victors.

It’s way past time to discard those parts of our mythologies that call for and glorify war.  They don’t serve us well.  What if we thought of ourselves, not as warrior-like (hardly a year went by in the 20th century that we were not at war), but as life-giving?  Our various mythologies (Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, etc.) already contain the seeds we need in order to envision ourselves in life-giving ways.  For example, “…[W]hoever kill[s] a human being…shall be regarded as having killed all mankind; and…whoever save[s] a human life shall be regarded as having saved all mankind” (Koran 5:32).  Also, “…[T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more….” (Micah 4: 3b).

I long for the day when the mythology that informs us–dying for one’s country as a just way to maintain honor and obtain freedom–will fade away.  The concepts of honor, freedom and justice (concepts many think are worth fighting and dying for) are fluid, changing over time in how they play out in society.  Some of our ancestors thought justice meant treating one’s slaves honorably or “well.”  Freedom meant living in joyous service to one’s master.  Today, we reject these interpretations of how honor, freedom, and justice should be “lived out” in society.  When we remember those who have died for particular definitions of honor, freedom, and justice this Memorial Day, let us imagine a time when honor, freedom, and justice mean giving life, not taking it.

“I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”  (George McGovern)

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Activism, General, holiday, Justice, Military, Myth, War and Peace

Tags: , , ,

10 replies

  1. let us imagine a time when honor, freedom, and justice mean giving life, not taking it.

    “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” (George McGovern)

    Nuff said, and though I “feel for” those who are suffering after having served, I am not grateful to anyone who has served in any war during my adult lifetime–as I have opposed all of those wars. Sigghhh….


    • Yes, Carol. I also “feel for” those who are suffering after having served. Why do you suppose our country–a country that claims to heap honor and glory on our warriors–has made such a mess of the V.A. system? More sighing……


  2. I joined the USArmy in the 1950’s. I noticed that most of us were poor and wanting to learn a trade or earn a high school diploma. Military service was a way to do it. For some of us, the only way.

    Target practice was fun, the company of other women with similar goals was energizing. Then one day I realized that “they”, those in command, expected me to also shoot people if ordered. I met people who had served in WW2 and Korea. I saw their trauma and interior wounds.

    I became a pacifist. War is not the way to relate to others. People ask: “How else could we stop Hitler?” I ask: “What if all those German soldiers said “No. We won’t be used this way”? But we are carefully prepared by those who benefit from aggression, and don’t you wonder what they are preparing us for next?

    Thanks for having the courage to speak different values, Esther.


  3. The U.S. has an all-volunteer military force. All those people signed up. A lot of them signed up just to get a job. Yes, “thank you for your service,” but I have never felt any reason to honor warriors, not from the days when I first read the Iliad and other mythological stories until I made friends with some Vietnam vets. Yes, they were taught to be brave, and they were also taught to kill. Boot camp tears you down, then builds up up to be what they want: someone willing to kill.

    Let’s consider honor arising from wisdom and peace, not from killing people who don’t necessarily look like you. You’re totally right. It is indeed time “to discard those parts of our mythologies that call for and glorify war. They don’t serve us well.” Many thanks for writing this thoughtful blog. Brava! I hope we’ll hear from you again.


  4. I’ve opposed all the wars that happened in my lifetime all of them. And Dan Rather once reported that virutally all the American soldiers raped women, that that was SOP back then, and the US government even set up brothals for the male troops. So when you look a man in the eye, a Vietnam vet, think of what Dan Rather reported, a white man said it so it must be true, think of Vietnamese women, and what those men did over there. Never forget that men LOVE war, because they get to rape and buy as many women as they want to. Never forget that the male soldier is a rapist, or he know men who raped, and he says nothing and said nothing to stop it.

    That’s what war is, so no thank you men, I’m tired of your wars, and I want half the country, the female half to put a stop to it, and women could, but they’d have to do something so radical that is would be mind blowing, and they’re not going to do this. So there really is no hope.


    • Sad fact, but true, that war and rape go together. It’s also true that many men “do” war as a way of life although there are men (I know several) that want no part of organized fighting (military). During Vietnam, soldiers (almost all men) left the country rather than fight in a war they did not agree with. I would like to see an end to war (as do you). Interesting to note that some men, as they age, are less prone to wage war. From my perspective, it seems we need to continually bring up the questions and always, always ask “Why?” Thanks for your response.


  5. Thanks, Esther, for this post. As you show, our ideology concerning veterans has changed over time as our feelings about particular wars have varied, but our underlying take on war has continued pretty much unaltered. To transform this will require a sea change, transformations in our educational system, our government, our religions, our customs, our work interactions, our childrearing practices, our entire “civil religion.” It’s the necessary work of our generation, the next, the one after that, and many more. Sometimes this realization exhausts me, but finding others who are working for this change is always inspiring.


  6. Thanks, Nancy. Resisting warmongers can be disheartening. The ideology of war seeps into all our institutions (as you noted). I’ll keep chipping away!


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