Why do we thank veterans?

In the current climate of veteran worship, all who put on a uniform are treated as heroes and promoted from soldiers to "warriors" deserving of our undying gratitude for their courage and sacrifice in protecting our "freedoms." The required greeting rolls off the tongue so easily: "Thank you for your service." Do you think that veterans might be a little cynical on hearing this from their countrymen who have no idea what they have been through?

Is it too much to ask which of our freedoms have been at stake in these long wars of choice in South Asia? Would ISIS really be knocking at our doors if, as the television commercial asserts, the U.S. Navy were not standing between them and us? Imagine instead what better use we might have put to the several trillion dollars (and thousands of lives) that we have so far wasted in the desert.


As for the veterans themselves, they are a minuscule part of the population who, for whatever reason, have chosen to participate in these wars. While many of them doubtless did so for patriotic motives, others may have wanted job security or educational benefits. Their sacrifices have not been shared, understood or even thought about by the bulk of the population, and, when we encounter those in uniform, we naturally feel guilty at this obvious unfairness. We try to salve our guilt with gestures of respect that may or may not have been earned. What does it say about our values that current and former Peace Corps volunteers are not singled out at airports for first-class upgrades?

My experience in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, the war of my generation, suggests that most soldiers fight, not for some abstraction like "freedom," but because in dangerous environments taking care of those around you is an earned obligation and makes your own survival more probable. Most soldiers do little that would be described as heroic. Being blown up in a Humvee driving down the road does not bespeak courage so much as bad luck. Combat has always been thus: who is killed and wounded is random — a matter of chance, not bravery.


Those who have been injured deserve our compassion and the best medical care available. But rather than mindlessly labeling them warriors, we might better think about whether their misfortune has advanced any legitimate national interest and whether there is something awry in our making the decision to put them at risk. No amount of saluting will give them their lives back.

We don't like to talk about it, but some young people are drawn to military service for reasons other than love of country: as a way of testing their own courage or, less admirably, exercising the power of life and death over others. Some, as at Abu Ghraib, become torturers. "Thank you for your service" doesn't quite comprehend the motives of this small minority of those who have served, though it is worth noting that a sniper who famously wrote "I like war" in his memoir has been recently lionized in the enormously popular movie, "American Sniper." (We are just now becoming aware that our police departments contain a reservoir of these "aggressive" people as well.)

When I returned from Vietnam it was with the sure knowledge that nothing that I had done there had made the world safer for my country, or for that matter, for the Vietnamese whom we ended up abandoning when we tired of the bloodletting. My family was glad to see me, and no one spit on me. I didn't get, nor did I deserve, a ticker-tape parade or the thanks of my fellow citizens. When I stand before that black granite wall in Washington, D.C., looking for names I recognize, I wonder if we learned anything as a nation about the limits of power or the futility of trying to graft democracy on people far away with different traditions. Apparently not.

Now we are watching another American-trained army dissolve in the face of an enemy with inferior numbers and equipment but superior motivation. We are re-learning another lesson of Vietnam: You cannot "train" people to risk their lives for an idea.

It is in this context that our worshipful attitude toward our veterans seems strange. We can have no idea why any individual soldier volunteered for the service, nor can we know what his or her experience was like. We can be reasonably sure that whatever they did had a negligible effect on protecting our freedom or advancing the cause of peace in a part of the world about which we know less than nothing.

Our veterans deserve respect for their sacrifices and the best care we can provide for the wounds, visible and internal, that war inevitably imposes. If we feel guilty about our own lack of sacrifice or even caring during these, our longest wars, perhaps we should direct our focus inward, instead of displacing it onto unknown soldiers.

Dr. Gordon Livingston is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia. His most recent book is "The thing you think you cannot do: thirty truths about fear and courage." His email is