The Risks of Memorial Day Not Being Personal

May 31, 2021
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In 2007, I spent Memorial Day in Fallujah. Although I was on my fifth tour in Iraq, it was the first deployment when I buried friends. I attended more than three dozen memorial services that deployment. I remember the names and faces of the dead. Memorial Day was no longer an abstraction.

This year’s Memorial Day carries with it the anticipation that the country might be bringing the 9/11 wars to a conclusion. America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan is coming to an end. The words that echo in my mind each year on this occasion are a phrase from President Abraham Lincoln: “that these dead shall not have died in vain.” It’s an unresolved prayer as I mourn lost comrades.

I worry that Memorial Day is personal to a smaller and smaller number of Americans. As a national community, Americans may no longer have the ability to collectively remember and honor shared sacrifice, because the sacrifice is not shared. The all-volunteer force created a military that is self-selecting. The wars of 9/11 created many veterans who are self-regarding and condescending to those who haven’t served in the military. A 2020 National Opinion Research Center survey found that a full 60 percent of post-9/11 veterans “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the eligible Americans who did not volunteer to serve during wartime should feel guilty, compared to just 43 percent of older veterans and 22 percent of civilians. That is dangerous for the country.

At times, it is as though Americans compete to see who can be the most bombastically patriotic in remembering their war dead. Remembrance should be a solemn acknowledgment of the tragedy of war and the nobility in serving one’s country in its armed forces.

Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” in 1868, when Americans decorated the graves of the war dead from the Civil War. Think for a moment about what may have stirred the people to decorate the graves. There were 752,000 killed in action in the war, which tested whether a “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … can long endure.” If an equivalent percentage of Americans were lost in a conflict today, those killed in action would number 7.9 million. Every American was personally affected by the Civil War. Yet there seemed to be nothing else that could be done to remember and honor the dead than place some flowers at their final resting place.

Memorial Day in my hometown of Casper, Wyoming, marked the unofficial beginning of summer growing up. It was also a somewhat strange, solemn, community-oriented day. The veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam who marched in the parade or rode in convertibles were town leaders. They did not loudly proclaim their status as veterans. My understanding of war and the military came from my father’s friends, who would on occasion regale us with their stories and reflections. One was a respected doctor who never missed an episode of M*A*S*H and hosted a watch party the night of the final episode. I heard him talk about his time serving as a doctor in Korea, lamenting the “boys who didn’t make it home.” My dad’s golfing buddy was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross in Vietnam. However, he only spoke of his war a few times, and then in sad and tragic terms of how cruel war is, and how he missed his comrades, because they were the closest friends he ever had.

Melancholy laced the voices of those war veterans. They avoided words like valor or hero or glory. The Distinguished Service Cross recipient pulled me aside when he learned that I was considering joining the military, counseling me: “remember, young man, there is nothing glorious in killing your fellow man or being killed by him. War is a terrible, terrible thing. You will witness the very worst in humankind. And yet, you’ll also witness the most generous, courageous, and selfless spirits you’ll ever come to know.” He was describing the one “great lyric passage of his life.

I joined the military because it was my chance to get a top-rate education and to serve something larger than myself. I joined a dozen years before 9/11, as the Cold War was ending. Many times I was asked by well-meaning friends, and even new acquaintances, “you seem bright and capable, why would you join the military?” Such stereotyping has been detailed well on these pages. The implication was clear: I was wasting my life pursuing a profession for which they had little regard. It was also a sign of the times. Serving in the military was not the most esteemed career choice.

There was little reason to believe my generation would see combat. We had missed our war in the short-lived glory of Desert Storm. We had every expectation that our cohort would not have to endure the turmoil and sacrifice of a conflict. But 19 extremists supported by a distributed and loosely coordinated leadership hiding in the hills of Afghanistan would change all of that. The nation’s response was to call on those small number who volunteered to serve and to ask the rest of the public to do little besides thank the troops for their service. Today people fall over themselves to thank me if they discover that I am a veteran.

I recall a Memorial Day a decade ago when a high school classmate called me and gushed about how much he appreciated the fact that the freedom he enjoyed today was because of me. I begged to differ. However comforting, it’s a half-truth. I don’t know that one can make a credible case for how the exertions of the military helped to keep Americans free. Moreover, I argued with him that those in uniform are not the only true patriots, and he should not for a minute believe that military servicemembers are better, different, or more selfless than other Americans. It is dangerous to believe that those who have served are exceptional.

This is not a new phenomenon. Bill Mauldin, the famed cartoonist and essayist, upon his return from World War II observed that many of his comrades held the belief that “one day or more spent in uniform entitles a man to devote the rest of his life to bragging about it and expecting special privileges because of it.” The difference today is that Mauldin’s America was a country in which nearly every citizen had a connection with the military — they had a family member or knew someone who had served or was serving. In 1980, 18 percent of adults were serving or had served in the military. That number is now 7 percent, or about 19 million veterans. By 2046 it is estimated that the number will decline to 12.5 million.

Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the most famous Memorial Day speech in 1884, looking back twenty-odd years to the Civil War: “the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” My generation of war veterans was similarly touched with fire.

But Holmes goes on to commend to his comrades and fellow citizens that “we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference.” For many Americans, the post 9/11 wars are abstract. They have not been required, nor even asked, to think about the country’s military operations. In fact, one of the casualties of the all-volunteer force has been a belief that it is not only unnecessary, but inappropriate for those not in uniform or who haven’t served to proffer opinions about questions of war and peace and the use of force.

In a controversial and much-read essay six years ago, James Fallows argued “this reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military — we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them — has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm.” This phenomenon is, as Jim Golby and Peter Feaver noted in this publication, “one of high regard at high remove — professed confidence in something most Americans do not have a direct personal engagement with, an institution most Americans do not want to be a part of but hold in high esteem, from a distance.” That carries with it troubling consequences. In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, noted civil-military scholars Risa Brooks, Golby, and Heidi Urben note, “repeating the mantra ‘Support our troops’ has become a substitute for the patriotic duty of questioning the institution those troops serve. … At best, these trends immunize the military from scrutiny; at worst, they give it a pass to behave with impunity.”

I have the benefit of some distance. I retired from the U.S. Marine Corps eight years ago this month. I often ask friends and colleagues what they think about the wars since 9/11. Some have strong opinions, but many are indifferent and ignorant, and perfectly comfortable with that. “You know, I don’t follow it very closely. I appreciate what you did, but I just don’t know.” My immediate rejoinder is to ask, “If you, or your son or daughter, had even a one in 365 chance of being drafted to serve in those conflicts, would you feel differently?”

Every single person pauses, ponders, and takes my point with respect. The all-volunteer force has allowed the country to be apathetic. Americans exist in a society today in which they may not all be in it together, because they are only calling on those who volunteer. Americans fall prey to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ scorn: indifference. But an even greater risk than that is that the United States becomes a society that values the wrong things. Memorial Day asks Americans to reconsider what is worth fighting for, what is worth dying for. If martial virtue is that which America values most, I worry for the country’s future. The all-volunteer force resulted in a more professional, competent, and capable military. It also resulted in a warrior class and a reverential, non-warrior class that do not know each other as well as they should nor possess the common bonds needed for a cohesive society.

This disconnect is not so significant that the country should consider reinstating the draft. Instead, military leaders and policymakers should look for ways to increase the experiences of shared citizenship and responsibility. Expanding junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs in high schools and colleges is one option. Another would be to increase national service opportunities. The country needs engaged citizens who are aware of its military and its activities overseas, but who also value all forms of service and expect sacrifice from all Americans.

If I learned anything in the military, it was to believe in my core that we were all in it together. We were all Americans — civilian and military. While Memorial Day honors those lost on the battlefield, this year I cannot help but think of the nearly 600,000 Americans lost to a pandemic in the last 16 months, and the heroic medical personnel who risked their lives to save others.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, I witnessed and heard and read the reports of battlefield heroism: A corpsman who rushed to care for his wounded comrade, a sergeant who insisted that he lead one more patrol to search for improvised explosive devices, and a lieutenant who truly led from the front. I also witnessed the grieving families. The losses are irretrievable. A mother and father for the rest of their days will think of their daughter killed in war.

I haven’t yet made up my mind if the post-9/11 wars were worth fighting for. But I’m proud that during a portion of that time I wore the cloth of my nation and contributed in some measure. I continue to think critically about America’s role in the world and if those who are sent into harm’s way have been sent with all the seriousness and due consideration that should surround such decisions, as every American can and should. As retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Paula Thornhill astutely reminds us, “Only when it becomes a routine part of a wide-ranging conversation will the American people better understand their military, its purpose, and those who serve in it.”

My hope is that this year’s Memorial Day is an occasion for Americans to make a greater effort to be more connected to their military. Those who are serving in uniform are among the many public servants — alongside teachers, public health experts, and countless others — who make the country great. Americans owe them gratitude, yes, but also criticism, and a commitment to pay attention to the issues that affect them. As the nation mourns its war dead, Americans can honor their memory by respecting one another and doing their part to create a more perfect union. In doing so, the country should commit to the sacred notion of the republic’s founding — that the people of a nation could live together and rule themselves, guided by a spirit of cooperation.



Scott Cooper is a retired Marine Corps officer and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Image: U.S. Army (Photos by Elizabeth Fraser)