At a civilian-veteran gathering in D.C. in early summer of 2012, a young vet came forward, turned to a civilian he hadn’t met before, and said: “Don’t just tell me ‘Thank you for your service.’ First say, ‘Please.’” He didn’t explain further. But the resentment expressed was unmistakable. You couldn’t be a civilian in that room and not feel the sting.
We hear “Thank you for your service” in airports and planes, on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. It’s become a practice in greeting service members returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the remarks can seem hollow. Whether service member or civilian, it’s easy to be cynical. I suspect the phrase is a corrective for how we used to greet Vietnam Vets—not well, and often with disdain. Still, the “thank you,” on its own, doesn’t do enough.
Consider the case of Phil Carter, the National Veterans Director in the first Obama presidential campaign and now counsel at the Washington think tank Center for New American Security (CNAS), focusing on the reintegration of veterans. Carter served nine years as an Army military police and civil affairs officer, including a year in Iraq, where he advised the provincial police, judiciary, and prisons in Diyala Province. In an opinion piece that appeared one Veterans Day in the Washington Post, Carter spoke candidly about the resentment he felt toward civilians upon coming home from Iraq in the spring of 2006. The “Thank yous” and “hero” labels rang hollow in light of what he had left behind: “thousands of Iraqis . . . dying each month in a hellish civil war. If we were really heroes, why was the war in Iraq going so badly?” He was alienated and withdrew from civilians: “I . . . resented the strangers who thanked me. I suspected that they were just trying to ease their guilt for not serving. Instead of thanking me, I wanted them . . . to make some sacrifice greater than the amount of lung effort necessary to utter a few words.” Words were cheap and action was dear, especially the sort of action he valued as a military person.
Some, like these two veterans, want greater civilian accountability for these longest wars in American history. As some vets put it, “America has been at the mall while we’ve been at war.” Others want signs of deeper civilian trust and understanding, so that they can reveal the true weight of the wars they carry—what it feels like to realize that your country may have betrayed you and that you may have betrayed others; that the sacrifices and losses may have been futile in stopping the spread of radical Islamism; that guilt and shame and grief can mix with a sense of honor and love for one’s country and those with whom one serves.
These are moral injuries. And they often go unrecognized, especially when we think of posttraumatic stress, narrowly, as a fear-conditioned disorder marked by symptoms like hyper-vigilance and flashbacks. But profound stress and anxiety can be about moral issues, and war, with all its gray and compromise and shady partnerships, is an arena ripe for that kind of stress. It can unanchor the most morally anchored among us.
The moral injuries result from a sense of real or perceived transgression. But also from a sense of falling short of the ideals of military honor, however lofty and impossible to fully reach. Shame and guilt are the symptoms of those injuries.
When soldiers come home, those wounds need to be healed. Profound shame and guilt, (and, too, resentment) left to fester can be annihilating. The suicide epidemic among veterans speaks volumes here. Restoring trust and hope in oneself and others is crucial. And civilians can play an important role in scaffolding that trust and hope through supportive conversations that show we are willing to engage and listen.
“Thank you for your service,” however polite or sincere, isn’t always a step in that direction. And so how do we take that step? I argue in Afterwar that we do it by doing it: we get to know veterans and form meaningful relationships that are mutual and empathic and trusting, whether in classrooms, jobs, gyms, or even airplanes. We have to get over the taboo that if we haven’t been to war, we don’t have a right to talk about what war has been like with veterans. In short, we need to treat veterans as the fellow citizens and potential friends they are, so that coming back is also a coming home.