Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on Veteran’s Day. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
This past week in America we celebrated Veterans Day. It is useful to recall what we were celebrating. Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, which commemorated the ending of World War I, which took place on the 11th month, the 11th day and the 11th hour in 1918. This armistice marked the end of war, the day “the troops” became veterans. Unlike “Support the Troops,” Armistice Day celebrates demilitarization and peace.
In 1954, the Eisenhower administration renamed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, to commemorate the veterans of all wars who have served our nation. The day became a reminder to the rest of the nation that even as our veterans’ service has ended, our turn is up. Veterans Day is not Memorial Day, which is set aside to honor the dead, and there is much more work involved in honoring living veterans than in honoring the dead. Somewhere along the way we have confused the two.
Sadly, the living and the dead share one predicament: our nation honors their service with empty words. It is easy to chant “Support Our Troops,” as it is to sing praises of our fallen heroes; it is much harder to provide medical care for veterans. Praise and slogans are devices by which we can dispense with the obligation to look after those who have sacrificed so much for us. When we praise heroism, we celebrate a hero’s sacrifice as a free gift to society that exacts no obligation on the part of the State to return the favor. It is not enough that we call our veterans’ service a sacrifice. Instead, we should reconceptualize their service as a contract by which our young men and women have offered to look out for us, and we in return have a correlative duty to take care of them when they return. Let us not just “Support our Troops,” but instead Honor Our Veterans.
In our highly polarized politics, words that bring us together are rare to find. But sometimes in our search for unifying language, we end up only with propaganda, as is the case with “Support our Troops.” The slogan allows us to forget that before the troops were assembled, they were first civilians, and after the troops come home, they are veterans. We make rhetorical choices, and these choices have very real implications.
It has become commonplace in progressive punditry to highlight the difference between supporting the troops and supporting the war, but this distinction cannot be as sharply made as progressives would like. The reason is that “Support Our Troops” fixates our attention on our servicemen and women’s agency at the theater of war. After all, we can only “Support Our Troops” if they remain as troops. Keep them at war, because we can only support troops, not veterans; or so the slogans slyly insinuates. “Support Our Troops” focuses our attention on the here and now, not the fallout, the injuries, the adjustment that must happen later. To focus on “Supporting Our Troops” is to prioritize the needs of those who are fighting over those who have fought, focusing our attention on the war mission by personifying it in the men and women who fight it.
The call to “Support Our Troops” also implies a troop leader to whom our troops are subordinated, whose mission they must accomplish. A troop is a military unit (originally a small force of cavalry) subordinate to a squadron and headed by the troop leader, and cavalry soldiers of private rank are called troopers. So to “Support Our Troops” is to remember their position as soldiers at the bottom of the chain of command, not citizens of a democracy who happen also to hold the awesome power of electing their Commander-in-Chief. Why are we so quick to designate our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers as the Commander-in-Chief would designate them – as troops – and not as our fellow citizens to whom the State owes an obligation? No wonder when individual members of a phalange drop out of war because of injury, the “Support our Troops” slogan doesn’t seem to apply to them. Well, the slogan tells us exactly why: rhetorically and actually, our concern is to “Support Our Troops,” not honor our veterans. Saying so has made it so.
We are not a medieval principality and our troops are not serfs to the king. Those who fight for us are citizens who made a compact to serve their country and not their king, they are not just troops committed to a mission determined by someone higher up the chain of command. We the People are at the top of the chain of command. The Commander-in-Chief owes his commission to the very people he commands – this is the paradox and majesty of our democracy. “Support Our Troops” elides this subtle fact by focusing our attention on troopers and their subordination to the troop leader. The slogan coagulates the multitude of servicemen and women into a single monolithic unit, a phalange of warriors ready to do the president’s bidding. “Support Our Troops” does not serve the country; it is propaganda that serves the Commander-in-Chief.