Examining the remarkable change in attitude of the American public toward military personnel over the last few decades
Those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam War recall very vividly the contempt and calumny that was heaped upon our military personnel both during and after the conflict. America lived through a shameful period in which those who wore the uniform were treated horribly by the American public, for whom those slandered soldiers had fought and sometimes died. While it was true that the behavior of a small segment of America’s military – e.g., those that perpetrated the My Lai massacre – warranted public opprobrium, the vast majority of American soldiers (almost all of whom were conscripts) deported themselves honorably, and often courageously, in Vietnam.
Nevertheless, when public opinion turned against the war, it too frequently manifested itself in scorn and derision directed against our men (and women) in uniform. This persisted even after the conflict ended. Although the worst treatment meted out to soldiers and veterans was probably limited to the hands of extreme left-wing activists, politicians and media-types, much of the country seemed to acquiesce in an attitude summarized in these points:
- The American military is a corrupt, morally repugnant and dangerous entity that brings shame and dishonor to the country.
- It is a contemptible institution unworthy of the public’s respect.
- Its leaders are venal, self-serving, violence-prone and unrepresentative of American values.
- Its soldiers are at best innocent and unwitting pawns in their leaders’ brutal designs and at worst savage, drug-crazed warriors engaged in illegal warfare.
It was disgusting; especially given how widespread it was and how long it went unchallenged. The attitude was also completely misguided and contrary to the historical pattern of respect and admiration that heretofore had been accorded our nation’s military forces. It symbolized a period of collective madness exhibited by the people of the nation.
Thankfully, this attitude softened considerably with the conversion of the military from conscription to volunteer, and then further with the advent of the Reagan administration. Certainly, in the 80s and 90s, the reputation of active military personnel improved perceptibly in the public’s eye. But Vietnam vets were still viewed with suspicion. And in truth, an overall healthy respect for the military was still far from the norm. America’s remaining coolness to the military in this period is best highlighted by the famous incident in the White House wherein a relatively low level staffer informed a senior military officer that “I don’t greet military people.”
An interesting corollary of this attitude was the spillover to police/fire/rescue personnel – or “first responders” as we now call them. The public’s respect for and admiration of first responders, albeit not as low as for military personnel still fell far below its traditional level.
But things changed dramatically after 9/11. A decade later, the public’s respect for, appreciation of and gratitude toward military personnel and first responders is arguably higher than it’s ever been in our nation’s history. I’ll outline the manifestations of this monumental change momentarily, but first let us consider: how did this miraculous transformation come about? Here are three possible reasons:
i. The monumental heroism displayed by uniformed personnel in NY and DC on that day, and in the next few months in Afghanistan, was so stupendously eye-opening that it caused tens of millions of Americans to reassess their attitude toward military personnel and first responders.
ii. America finally tired of its abnormal distrust of the military and returned to its historical gratitude for the job uniformed people do under life-threatening conditions.
iii. The moderate Left ultimately recognized the damage that they were doing to the cause of freedom in the US and around the world, and so modified its opinion. Having done so, this broke a logjam and the rest of the country was pleased to accept the change of heart and follow suit.
I suppose that the true reason is some combination of the above. Whatever the reason, today, Americans routinely witness enthusiastic and emotional public displays of affection, respect, even love toward military personnel. Whether it be a spontaneous burst of applause for uniformed personnel in public venues; laudatory media stories focusing on the heroism and selflessness of our troops; testimonials to the bravery and indispensability of our armed forces; or just neighborhood alliances with first responders; examples of adulation of military personnel occur frequently all over the land. During the last decade, this change in attitude has survived the bloody civil war in Iraq following our successful invasion but botched occupation; the gut-wrenching disputes over the role of women and gays in the military; and the Obama administration’s devaluing the importance of military preparedness and its draconian cuts to military budgets.
Despite these, America’s affection for and gratitude toward the American military remains strong – even on the Left. It is a wonder to observe – as one easily could do on Memorial Day just passed – liberal politicians, media types and activists gushing with praise for our military personnel, and acknowledging the debt that we owe them. I suspect that for some – e.g., Mr. Obama – it’s just a matter of reading the political tea leaves and bending with the current trends. Should America’s support of its military personnel wane again, the hard Left will be off that horse real fast. But I also suspect that among the moderate Left, the affection is genuine. Those folks seem finally to have come to their senses – namely even if they support big government, fear free markets and prefer multiculturalism to traditional American values, they still love America, treasure its freedoms and want the US to be the harbinger of same around the world. They realize, perhaps belatedly, that a strong military is a necessary and vital component of the effort. It gives a conservative hope. Maybe, if we can help the moderate Left to shove Obama – and the hard lefties that surround him – aside, America can resume its normal role as a beacon of liberty and prosperity to the world.