On Patriotic Correctness | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

On Patriotic Correctness 

Armed Forces Day is a good time to take stock of your own patriotic correctness.

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"Just two days and a wake-up" in soldier-speak.

Since 1950, the third Saturday in May has been designated to honor those who serve in uniform and for educating the public about the military.

I wonder if there are Armed Forces Day (AFD) events in Utah this weekend, the home state of many active- and reserve-component military units? I hope so. No doubt the residents of Fayetteville, Ark., and Killeen, Texas, are honoring their next-door neighbors at Fort Bragg and Fort Hood—a pancake breakfast, perhaps? A family day in the park? Freebies from local businesses?

On the other hand, educating Utahns about the military is like teaching kids about sex—a good idea in concept but a neglected one in practice. That said, I hadn't given much thought to AFD myself until I read "The Warrior at the Mall," an op-ed in The New York Times. The byline was Phil Klay, a self-described "veteran of a war that doesn't end, in a country that doesn't pay attention."

Klay snagged me with his line, "We're at war while America is at the mall." He first heard the ironic catchphrase as a Marine lieutenant in Afghanistan in the 2000s. It was inspired by a speech President George W. Bush gave a few days after the 9/11 attacks in which he suggested a trip to Disney World as a personal, counterterrorist tactic: "Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed," he said. The provenance of the catchphrase is likely traceable to a dirty, disgruntled GI in the desert, nursing a canteen of warm water, a Hershey bar and a pack of Marlboros just like his predecessors in Vietnam 50 years before.

Soldier-speak: "The wind in Vietnam doesn't blow, it sucks."

Klay's essay is an unexpected AFD lesson for those who take the time to read it. Not only does it steer clear of such worn-out platitudes as "Thanks for your service," it introduces the inattentive public to a "fraudulent form of American patriotism" Klay dubs "patriotic correctness (PC)." Klay's PC describes a mindset "where 'soldiers' are sacred, the work of actual soldiering is ignored, and the pageantry of military worship sucks energy away from the obligations of citizenship." Chief among those obligations is to be informed and engaged when military matters are discussed. However, PC does not suffer critics gladly, Klay writes. The PC tendency is to equate criticism of unwinnable wars with disrespect for the soldiers who fight them.

"Fubar" in soldier-speak: Fucked up beyond all recognition.

"The Warrior at the Mall" brought 624 comments to the newspaper. One, from Gold Star father Robert Sommer, read: "My wife and I were hard-wired into the wars, and it was often disorienting to realize not only how little others were affected by them, but also that many were not even aware of them in all but the vaguest way."

I can think of only two reasons why most Americans are unaware of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. First, journalists aren't filing stories daily from the battlefield as they did in previous wars. Second, not many people have skin in the game: America's longest wars have been fought by less than 1 percent of the population—16 times less than the percentage during Vietnam. In the late 1960s, everyone had a friend or relative in Vietnam, and our collective disapproval eventually brought the war to an end. Today's disengaged citizenry makes war easy to start and hard to stop. Since the end of the draft in 1973, there have been more than 140 military deployments, according to the Congressional Research Service. Between 1945 and 1973, with conscription the order of the day, there were 19. It is ironic that ending the draft in 1973 might have had the unintended effect of fraying the connection between soldiers and civilians. James Fallows, national correspondent of The Atlantic, has written about the "reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them—[which] has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm."

"Snafu" in soldier-speak: Situation normal, all fucked up.

That somebody else's son or daughter does the fighting is the norm. For the vast majority of Americans, the long wars levy no tax, require no sacrifice, preclude no mall outings. The underlying unfairness does not go unnoticed: Klay's essay describes veterans who harbor ill feelings for those who have chosen not to join the military.

My driver license has VETERAN printed on it. It occasionally earns me a "Thanks for your service" from a well-intentioned clerk. I am always unsettled by it chiefly because as a draftee, my soldiering days were involuntary. Other veterans react similarly but for different reasons. "Please Don't Thank Me for My Service" headlined a story in The New York Times in 2015. The story by Matt Richtel cited Afghanistan and Iraq veterans' comments about what they called a "thank you for your service phenomenon." Among the abrasive adjectives they used were "shallow," "disconnected" and "reflexive." Tim O'Brien added "patriotic gloss." Richtel quotes O'Brien, the author of several acclaimed books about the Vietnam War, suggesting that the thank-you's deflect attention from the real issue, the legitimacy of the war itself.

The approaching weekend is a good time for taking stock of your own patriotic correctness. To let the opportunity pass is to relegate this year's AFD to just another Saturday in May. In soldier-speak: "Same old shit, different day."

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