Most Americans today have but two connections with those who serve and have served in the military, and especially those who have perished in that service. The first is the hollow seconds it takes to utter “Thank you for your service,” an seemingly autonomic reflex when seeing someone in uniform. The other occurs should they see a film about any of our many conflicts. Since America’s last declared war, which ended 70 years ago, Memorial Day has become an annual celebration of patriotic hypocrisy, when people might notice that the American flag they ran up their front yard pole last year is faded and frayed and, maybe, add a new one to their celebration’s shopping list.
True appreciation is measured by our depth of experience and understanding. Today, less than 1 percent of the population reaps the benefits resulting from the service and sacrifice of the less than 1 percent of the population who serve the politicians elected by the majority of people who separate, and have no direct involvement with, these two segments of society. And this disconnection and separation is no accident.
During the war Congress declared the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, citizens didn’t thank members of the military for their service because everyone, one way or the other, was involved and contributed to a successful outcome. For many, Korea is a forgotten conflict, but it set the stage for all the undeclared conflicts that followed. War, as Eisenhower warned, is big business, and public protest is a political challenge that complicates their promotion and prosecution. Vietnam proved this, and people protested because the draft could send any one of them into harms way. And on the nightly news they would watch their loved ones suffer for a cloudy cause.
The politicians, most of whom have never served and faced the possibility of a sudden end to life, solved this problem by replacing the draft with the all volunteer force. And never again would the news media work with the unrestricted access it had in Vietnam. Nor could they show the return of flag-draped transfer cases. “Privacy,” the politicians said, but certainly a planeload of flags bedecked boxes says something more—something different—than a missing-man flyover and the single triangle-folded flag presented to the family to conclude a funeral’s full military honors.
Understanding is the antidote for hypocrisy, and films that promote and criticize America’s endless series of conflicts can contribute to it. Watching requires more involvement than saying “Thanks” to a uniformed stranger. Put yourself in the protagonist’s place and wonder how you—and your family—would feel and deal with the consequences projected on the screen. Build on this understanding, test its veracity with questions and settle for nothing less than a direct answer to it, make it a resource that guides your daily decisions. In so doing you can honestly honor those for whom this holiday was created after the nation’s most catastrophic conflict, the U.S. Civil War, which took the lives of roughly 620,000 individuals in military service. –Scott Spangler, Editor