11/12/2011 02:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 12, 2012

Veterans Day in a Fractured America

Credit Barack Obama with some brilliant Veterans Day moves. In addition to the customary Arlington solemnities, he presided over the opening of the college basketball season on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier which conducted the funeral of Osama bin Laden.

Obama ESPN hoopster, check. Obama bagging Osama, check. Obama buds with the troops, check.

It's all a very nice kick-off to Obama's nine days of Asia Pacific summitry, a neat contrast to the reality show clownfest that is the Republican presidential race.

But the stagecraft obscures basic realities that plague the country, which this Veterans Day found ever more fractured.

President Barack Obama spoke from the flight control center of the USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier which conducted the funeral of Osama bin Laden, in San Diego on Veterans Day.

After two big wars in 10 years, the country is fractured and fatigued, the economy sputtering after a near depression, with few Americans having any real experience or familiarity with the military.

And the veterans we celebrate, more dutifully it seems to me than not, all too often come back fractured in mind and body, as my father did.

The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, told National Guard leaders meeting on November 7 in National Harbor, Maryland that the military is as well-respected an institution as there is in American life. The military in America have a whopping 78 percent approval rating.

It wasn't always that way. By the time the Vietnam War ended, only 50 percent of Americans approved of the military. We've seen quite a turnaround.

Dempsey said it's because "the American people see us as caring about them and their welfare; the American people see us as trying to remaining aloof from politics. They see us as honest brokers and good stewards."

While small business people and police are highly-regarded as well, bankers and politicians are not. Because, argued Dempsey, they are seen as self-serving.

Dempsey went on to talk about how the military might screw up its sterling reputation.

"The first thing we can screw up is if we don't recognize that our country has an economic crisis and we have to be part of the solution," he said. "If we are seen as just another special interest group fighting off the reality of the new fiscal environment, we will lose the standing we have earned with the American people."

Of course, that is very much a huge danger, as American treasure as well as blood has been massively expended in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which most Americans don't believe have made the country safer. And we have a vast network of bases all over the world.

With the federal larder bare after foolhardy moonshots in Iraq and Afghanistan, something has to give. There are going to have to be very clearcut strategic rationales in the future for a military establishment that spends more than all the other nations on the planet combined.

Dempsey also said it would be a huge blow to the military's prestige if veterans are allowed to wither after their military service, raising the specter of "homeless vets crowded into tent camps under interstate highway bridges."

And he said the military has to "remain apolitical", especially with the country heading into an election year.

Well, my observation is that the military is a very political institution, just not always overtly so.

There was a lot of Pentagon pressure on Obama to double and triple and quadruple down in Afghanistan, which most Americans think hasn't worked out at all. And there was a lot of pressure not to intervene as part of the European and Arab coalition in Libya, which has worked out far better. (And vastly more affordably.)

America has an important role to play in the world. But we are not in a position to impose our will upon our whim, if in fact we ever were.

After the massive mistakes of the past decade, we have to be very smart in our choices. We've certainly run out of any financial margin for error.

While Dempsey's talk was interesting, what Dempsey didn't talk about is the deeper problem for the military, and for the veterans of the future. And that is the deep fracture of experience that has emerged between those who have served in the military and those who have not.

Today there is a smaller percentage of Americans in uniform during wartime than any time in over 200 years.

And increasingly the politicians making decisions on war have no military experience. It's easy to imagine that war is all about push-button gee-whiz. Except for all the evidence we have that it is still very nitty gritty, down and dirty stuff. And if you've never humped a pack and a weapon in a jungle, a desert, or at mile high-plus elevation, you don't have a fundamental understanding of what the point of the spear always ends up being about.

This can lead to very cavalier decision-making, as I believe we've seen in the past decade.

And it can lead, if things go more sour still, to a sharp reversal in public regard for the military. With those bases which have closed in the past few decades disproportionately outside the South, and military service at historic lows, most Americans have no real sense of the military, pro and con.

And what one doesn't know is easy to cast aside.

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