As Americans, how we view the men and women who have served in our military has evolved over the years.
From the intense patriotism seen during World War II to the protests over the Vietnam War, our country has had a love-hate relationship with military conflicts and those who fight in them.
Hopefully, most of us acknowledge that we owe a great debt to our veterans because of the freedoms we enjoy, freedoms that they have fought and died to protect. This week, it probably sent shivers of patriotism up our spines when we saw elderly veterans stand and be honored as John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” or a military branch’s fight song was played at an Independence Day concert.
But our perception of American soldiers and veterans has not always been simple and pure. Much has depended on the conflict itself. Separating from British oppressors to create one’s own country is one thing; sending our troops overseas to die in an unpopular, losing battle against the spread of communism — or in the name of protecting our Middle Eastern oil interests — is another.
Flashpoints like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 tend to unify us and justify military force, in the name of striking back at those who dared attack us on our own soil. Similarly, sinister dictators annihilating millions of innocent people, like Adolf Hitler, tend to galvanize the American public and their support for military action aimed at protecting the innocent and punishing “evildoers.”
American support for both the objective of the conflict and our soldiers seemed solid in both world wars, but Vietnam was a different story. While the draft — and domestic rationing of much-needed war resources like metal — pulled us together with a sense of shared sacrifice in the first half of the 20th century, by the time Vietnam rolled around, the draft fell out of favor, and the peace movement stood as a constant, vocal critic of the conflict as being an unpopular, unnecessary and unsuccessful effort. Protesters didn’t just oppose the war, they spit on our own soldiers when they returned from the conflict.
The first Gulf war, while viewed by many as oil-motivated, was tolerated as a good, old-fashioned American ass-kicking that felt like it was done at a comfortable, detached arm’s length, because it didn’t cost us many lives and was marked by CNN videos of smart bombs being directed into chimneys with video-game joysticks.
Then came 9/11, resulting in a renewed swell of patriotism and support for our troops, who were righteously sent into Afghanistan to go get the bastards. American flag bumper stickers sold like hotcakes.
Then, somehow, for reasons that are still disputed, we ended up in Iraq. And yet, most of us who questioned that war did not blame the soldiers who were ordered to fight in it. Suddenly, there was a need for a new bumper sticker, one that made a finer distinction in responding to the blind patriots who were urging us to “love it or leave it.” It was a bumper sticker saying, “I can oppose the war and still support the troops.”
And yet, there are still gray areas. What do we make of our American soldiers who have tarnished the reputations of their fellow troops — and, indeed, all of us — by doing things like urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters?
We have come a long way, but it remains to be seen how our next conflict — and those who fight in it — will be perceived.
Each year around Independence Day, instead of engaging in rah-rah patriotism, Boulder Weekly celebrates our freedom of speech, and of the press, by taking an in-depth, critical look at a challenging national issue facing our country.
This year, in an effort to provide some perspective on how much things have changed on the battlefield and on the home front when it comes to the military, we present the following package of stories examining the modern soldier and veteran. We hope you find it interesting and provocative.