Memorial Day makes me uncomfortable. I know: sacrilege, right? In theory, the idea is a national holiday on which we honor our service men and women. In practice, it is an opportunity for politicians to pay lip service to a sacrifice that a tiny portion of the citizenry make which the vast majority never bears direct witness to and, therefore, cannot really understand. And how better to honor immense sacrifice than by taking the day off work and having a barbecue?
Seasonally overt flag-waving (captured year-round in the “Support the troops!” meme) is a custom that detaches patriotic sentiment from the burden of responsibility. What responsibility, you may ask? That of effectively using our society’s military might only when truly in our national security prerogative, so as to not demand unnecessary suffering from our soldiers.
It just feels good to speak in favor of those who fight for us. When we say things like “we honor and support the troops,” we grant special recognition for what we know, intellectually, is an extraordinarily difficult experience. But empty shibboleths and a vacation day are panaceas that cannot replace the responsibility of treating our service men and women better the other 364 days of the year.
How can we better respect our veterans and active-duty military? I could start by pointing to the need to improve the weaknesses in the VA healthcare system, or the lack of rehabilitative training to effectively reintegrate veterans into society, or the poor mental health support for veterans suffering from PTSD. The problem is that these services rely on bureaucracy, and bureaucracies have a tendency to provide inefficient solutions(1). Waving our hands and saying “We just need to make sure our veterans get better healthcare!” ignores the overwhelming challenges inherent in speedily reforming any bureaucracy.
We can and should attempt to increase institutional efficiency. But it is not realistic to expect this change to come about quickly. No: the only real way to honor the sacrifices that our armed forces make is to be extraordinarily cautious about when we ask them to kill or be killed on our behalf (not to mention risking great personal harm, disfigurement, and seeing their comrades die beside them). No amount of family barbeques and patriotic platitudes can substitute for this responsibility that ultimately we the people carry with us the entire year, not just on memorial day.
Becoming more selective about our military engagements requires a well defined understanding of America’s critical strategic security interests(2). Failing this, we will end up sending Americans to confront death and the permanent psychological scarring that accompanies killing in cold blood for causes that don’t actually require the loss of life and limb. We need to have this conversation now, before another major foreign policy initiative becomes crafted in a moment of collective panic. This discussion is necessary to determine circumstances in which we would truly be willing to send our fellow citizens abroad to face the horror of daily death and dismemberment. Without this dialogue, we stand little chance at more scrupulously deploying American power around the world. This is how we fail our troops.
Platitudes are nice, but actions speak louder than words. Let’s support our armed forces by encouraging a frank discussion about what America’s critical strategic interests are, when we would be willing to defend them, with what power, and at what cost. This is how we honor our troops: by only asking for their sacrifice when it is crucial. Not with self-congratulatory faux-patriotic hero-worship on a national excuse to have a long weekend.
Note that I’m not making a case for or against bureaucracies versus privatization. Sometimes inefficiency is worth the trade off of maintaining a particular institution as a public one.
- By “interests” I mean thresholds which, once crossed, pose significant risk to our collective health and wellbeing, economic prosperity, individual rights, or national sovereignty. For America, these interest can be extrapolated to include global stability, the decline of which would affect a number of our national interests.