Paul Pillar

What Veterans Teach Us

It is encouraging that the last several Veterans Days have seen more earnest thanking and honoring of our military veterans than one saw a generation ago. The ceremonies seem less perfunctory, the expressions of gratitude more genuine. Before we let this year's recognition of veterans slip away, think about one other dimension regarding our veterans besides the well deserved honor and gratitude: what they have to teach us. I am naturally inclined to think along these lines, as a professor in a graduate-level university program that focuses on matters of national security. A significant number of our students have served in the military or are serving now. I highly value the perspectives that any of our students who have had major life experiences outside the classroom bring to discussions inside it, but I think I value the military veterans most of all. They are mature beyond their years. They bring, as the first set of lessons they have to offer, a sense of ground truth and reality that comes from facing harsh reality in harsh places.

A second and related set of lessons involves a greater appreciation for the costs and consequences of the use of military force. The lessons here go beyond students edifying other students. They involve perspectives that—to the extent they are heard and appreciated—are invaluable additions to larger discourse about public policy. The perspectives are reflected in survey research showing that those who have served in the military tend to express greater caution about additional applications of military force than those who have not. The lesser impact of this perspective is one of the unfortunate consequences of the dwindling proportion of military veterans who function as policy makers, especially in Congress.

A third set of lessons involves the concept of duty and service to a greater good. This is not unique to military service; the concept is embodied as well in civilian public service and in some forms of work in the private sector oriented toward advancing the public interest. But military service embodies it in a form that is particularly conspicuous and that can entail more personal costs and risks than other forms. It is a throwback to times when this concept of duty and of service to goals that go beyond the personal seemed to carry more weight than it does today. In the post-World War II years it probably carried the most weight about the time that John Kennedy spoke of asking what you can do for your country rather than what your country can do for you.

It was a military operation—the Vietnam War—that was most responsible for dissipating the ethos that Kennedy's words represented. Then, after the scandals and malaise of the 1970s, the nation seemed to have a rejuvenated spirit beginning in the 1980s. But that spirit was not a return of a do-for-your-country spirit of service. Instead, it was a second Gilded Age in which the lure of individual enrichment and advancement motivated Americans.  

Americans unquestionably are very patriotic, at least as much today as any of the last several decades. But this patriotism is centered more on what the country can do for the individual than the reverse. It is a flag-waving nationalism that has less to do with any sense of service than on exaltation about how fortunate Americans are to live in the country they do, and how much better the country is than any other.

These distinctions also show up outside America, as it did in an incident this week half a globe away in China. A British delegation led by Prime Minister David Cameron arrived for meetings with their Chinese counterparts wearing silk poppies in their lapels. This was a gesture of respect for military veterans, common in Britain in the days leading up to Armistice Day—our Veterans Day—that refers back to the poppies that grew in the fields of Flanders where so much blood was shed in World War I. The Chinese objected on grounds that it reminded them of China's defeat by the British in the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century. Here were two very different forms of patriotism, the noble and the perverse, at work. The British display of the poppy is purely an act of respect for those who have served. It isn't even a specifically British nationalist symbol; poppies have been used as a remembrance for veterans in other countries, including the United States, although not as much as in Britain and not as much in recent years as formerly. The Chinese response, in contrast, was an example of the weight-throwing nationalist assertiveness that has increasingly characterized China's policies in recent years. It embodied the notion that a power as determined as China is to make its mark as a great power shouldn't have to put up with even a gesture that through contorted reasoning could be construed as some kind of insult.

Bravo to Prime Minister Cameron and his delegation for keeping the poppies in their lapels.