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Big Idea: How Should We Honor Someone's Military Service?

By Tai S. Edwards, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Kansas Studies Institute at Johnson County Community College 

I have often witnessed civilians greet veterans with a hand shake and say, “Thank you for your service.” Online you can find many discussions about veterans’ perceptions of this interaction, ranging from appreciative, to awkward, to disingenuous, and beyond. 

To justify warfare, political leaders craft simplistic narratives around advancing freedom and defending liberty, ostensibly establishing clear boundaries between American hero and foreign enemy. In contrast, military personnel fulfill the myriad of roles needed to mobilize a complex bureaucracy to achieve a variety of objectives based upon a much more nuanced understanding of geopolitical stability and national security. Thus, a chasm separates veterans’ experiences and civilians’ expectations. Aggravating the problem is the fact that less than half of one percent of the U.S. population has served in the post-9/11-military and the nation “hasn’t really felt war.” There is no draft or required service, no specific war tax or economic sacrifice, and news coverage is sporadic at best. 
 

Once veterans return home, many civilians don’t know how to talk to them, which only increases moral injury.

All of this has limited public awareness of the moral injury war always inflicts. Philosopher and U.S. Army Lieutenant General (Retired) James M. Dubik has argued that moral injury results from the paradoxical nature of war, “the morally repugnant is the morally permissible, and even the morally necessary...War justifies – more importantly demands – what in peacetime, would be unjustifiable: the destruction of the lives and happiness of others.” Other aspects of moral injury include feelings of guilt that one should have done more, especially for those with whom they served, or a sense of betrayal if one’s service at the time or later was deemed unjust, imprudent, or unnecessary. Once veterans return home, many civilians don’t know how to talk to them, which only increases moral injury. We fear intruding on a veteran’s privacy, bringing up bad memories, or more likely, showing our ignorance. “Thank you for your service” seems to be all many can say or do, if that.

So what do we owe veterans? Most Americans can easily articulate that long-term institutional and fiscal support is required. But that’s not enough. Dubik challenges everyone to learn more about what veterans have experienced on our behalf, understand them, engage them, and help them live well. “It’s not a matter of gratitude; it’s a matter of reciprocity.” To begin, all one needs to do is listen. Humanities Kansas has recently engaged in such work through the “Kansas Stories of the Vietnam War” oral history project.  My colleague Kena Zumalt and I participated in this project, having student (and post-9/11) veterans interview Vietnam-era veterans. When asked about the significance of his military service and having his oral history recorded, David Svajda (U.S. Navy) responded “national decisions affect real people…When people are in the military, you’re giving them the best years of your life…When we make national decisions, [we’re] affecting people for their next 60 years.” It’s not just “their next 60 years,” it is all of our next 60 years.  Humanities Kansas held a concluding ceremony for this project in April. Surrounded by veterans, their families, partner organizations, and other dignitaries, one veteran’s spouse leaned over to me and said “this is better than all the wheelchairs you could give them.”  I knew what she meant. If we want to begin healing moral injuries, from past and present wars, we have to take responsibility for our shared role in sending people to war, keeping them there, and reintegrating them after. Thanking someone for their military service requires listening and building relationships; gratitude requires engagement.

About Tai Edwards

Dr. Tai S. Edwards is an Associate professor of history and director of the Kansas Studies Institute at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. Her teaching focuses on US and Indigenous Peoples history. Her scholarship focuses on US imperialism, Indigenous Peoples, disease, and gender roles. Her recent book Osage Women and Empire: Gender and Power was published by University Press of Kansas in 2018. With the Kansas Studies Institute, Dr. Edwards has collaborated on many projects including recording veterans’ oral histories, documenting the first 50 years of Special Olympics Kansas, and raising funds to help preserve the Quindaro townsite in Kansas City, Kansas.

These views do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities Kansas, its board of directors, or staff. 

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