What the President Should Say to the Troops

06/10/2015 10:22 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

For George W. Bush, American troops were the greatest force for human freedom in the world. For Barack Obama, the troops represented the world's finest fighting force, not just in this moment, but in all of human history. What is the reason for such hyperbolic -- I'd even say unhinged -- praise for our troops? Well, presidents obviously think it is both politically popular with the heartland and personally expedient in making them seem thankful for the troops' service.

But here's the problem: We don't need hyperbolic statements that our military is the "finest fighting force" ever, or that our troops are the world's liberators and bringers of freedom. Such words are immoderate and boastful. They're also false, or at least unprovable. They're intended to win favor both with the troops and with the people back home -- they're politically calculated. And in that sense, they're ill-advised and even dishonest; they're basically nothing more than flattery.

If I were president, I'd say something like this: "I commend our troops for their dedication, their service, their commitment, their sacrifice. They represent many of the best attributes of our country. I'm proud to be their commander in chief."

Our troops and most everyone else would be more than satisfied with that statement. Our troops don't need to hear they're the best warriors in all of history. At the same time, they don't need to hear they're the bringers of freedom ("a global force for good," to use the U.S. Navy's slogan, recently dropped as demotivating to sailors and Marines). Let's pause for a moment and compare those two statements. The toughest warriors and the finest liberators? Life-takers and widow-makers as well as freedom-bringers and world liberators? You think there just might be some tension in that equation?

We need honesty, not immodesty, from America's presidents. Give me a president who is able to thank the troops without gushing over them. Even more, give me a president who thanks the troops by not wasting their efforts in lost causes such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Give me a president who thanks the troops by downsizing our empire while fully funding benefits and health care for wounded veterans.

That's the kind of thanks our troops really need -- not empty flattery.

William Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and former professor of history who edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.