Thanking the U.S. Military for Screwing Up Royally

03/17/2015 10:41 am ET | Updated May 17, 2015

Cross-posted with

I should be used to it by now. I'm talking about the ever-more-ingrained civilian habit of eternally thanking American troops and veterans for "their service." The most recent example that caught me off-guard: New York Times reporter Matt Richtel, covering a story about the marijuana business in Colorado, came upon a former Afghan War vet running a security company and, evidently while on the job, automatically thanked him for his service. Later, Richtel discovered how uncomfortable that former soldier and other vets from our not-exactly-stellar recent wars often feel about those regular civilian pats on the back.

And I don't blame them. In fact, I couldn't believe that a Times reporter did that while on the clock. At my advanced age, I experience that increasingly all-American habit, like a number of other commonplaces of our post-9/11 world (including the word "homeland"), as distinctly un-American. In my 1950s childhood, such a habit would have been nothing short of nonsensical.

Let me explain by analogy: if you go to the grocery store, buy the makings for your dinner, and cook it yourself, you don't sit down at the table and say, "Thank you for cooking this." For that, you have to go to someone else's house and consume a meal for which you did nothing whatsoever but appear. In "thank you for your service" terms, in 1950s America the military was, in an everyday sort of way, simply a part of American life. It was a draft citizen's army and so not only ours, but us. Enormous numbers of Americans had served in World War II, a war that no one doubted was justified and necessary. As a citizen, to thank them or those then in uniform for their service was, in essence, to thank yourself. It would have made no sense whatsoever. It would have been like patting yourself on the back.

The present thank-yous reflect a new reality: Americans now feel as if the military isn't theirs, has nothing to do with them, and is no part of their lives. It's someone else's dinner party (or nightmare, if you prefer). In other words, it's a habit that reflects just how far American war, even as it has become ever more permanent in our world, has also become more alien, ever less us.

And of course there's another obvious question to deal with: What exactly are you thanking those veterans for? By 2013, American support for the war Richtel thanked that vet for fighting had dropped below 20 percent and so, based on polling figures, had become possibly the "most unpopular" in our history. In other words, Richtel was thanking that vet for fighting a war that Americans in staggering numbers now believe we shouldn't have fought. Which makes the eternal gratitude a little strange on the face of it.

Nan Levinson has spent a lot of time with the veterans of America's recent wars and produced a new book in which they are neither simply heroes to be thanked nor victims to be pitied, but actors in their own complicated story. War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built offers a grunt's eye view of this country's two recent occupations -- in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the complicated, unnerving world American soldiers face (including all those civilians thanking them) on returning home. Today, in "The Big Dick School of American Patriotism" she considers what in the world we are to make of the new military mystique that envelops our country and the strange war culture that goes with it.