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How Should We Honor Someone's Military Service?

Vietnam War memorial at the University of Kansas. (Photo by J. Schafer)

On Monday, the nation observed Veterans Day. Parades and ceremonies were held all across the country to honor the men and women who have served in the U.S. military. Relatively few Americans have served in uniform. But most Americans say they appreciate the service of those who have. That raises a question: what's the best way to honor and thank our veterans? Guest Commentator Tai Edwards has a suggestion.


Guest Commentator Tai Edwards is a history professor and Director of the Kansas Studies Institute at Johnson County Community College. She lives in Lawrence.

This commentary is part of the Big Idea series sponsored by Humanities Kansas. The series shares current scholarship to spark conversations about events that shape our world. To learn more, visit humanitieskansas.org and click on "Explore Kansas Stories."  

(Transcript)

I have often witnessed civilians greet veterans with a hand shake and the refrain, “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.

These differing views likely stem from the chasm that separates veterans’ experiences from civilians’ expectations. In the post-9/11-era, less than half of one percent of the U.S. population has served in the military and the nation “hasn’t really felt war”. Unlike World War II or the Vietnam war, there is no draft, no specific war tax or rationing of goods, and news coverage of war today is sporadic at best. Unless you have a loved one deployed overseas, your daily life is largely unaffected.

All of this has limited public awareness of the moral injury war always inflicts. Philosopher and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General James M. Dubik has argued that moral injury results from the paradoxical nature of war, he argues, “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. “Thank you for your service” seems to be all many can say or do, if even 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, and engage them. He says, “It’s not a matter of gratitude; it’s a matter of reciprocity.” To begin, all one needs to do is listen. And listening is just what some Kansans have been doing.

A recent Humanities Kansas initiative called “Kansas Stories of the Vietnam War” tasked organizations with recording oral histories of Vietnam-era veterans. My colleague Kena Zumalt and I participated in this project, having 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 responded “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.” But it’s not just “their next 60 years,” it’s the next 60 years for all of us.

Humanities Kansas held a concluding ceremony for this project in April. 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 they return home. Thanking someone for their military service requires listening and building relationships. Real gratitude requires engagement.

That’s why Humanities Kansas has commenced another project as part of their Big Ideas series, titled “How Should We Honor Someone’s Military Service?” To learn more visit humanitieskansas.org and click on “Explore Kansas Stores.”

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