One of our post-9-11 social norms is to render automatic gratitude for the service of our military service members. “Thanks for your service” has become a reflexive response that marks one as a duly grateful and patriotic citizen.
As a matter of both logic and ethics, however, I cannot be grateful for service about which I know nothing. Military service could include anything from pushing pencils to raiding homes to inflicting collateral damage. U.S. forces recently killed more than 20 patients, doctors, and staff when they bombed a Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. I am not grateful for that service.
Some military service members are equally opposed to the “Thanks for your service” phenomenon – not because they think it might be unwarranted, but because they know it is uninformed. In covering this issue, New York Times reporter Matt Richtel writes, “To some recent vets – by no stretch all of them – the thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people who, while meaning well, have no clue what soldiers did over there or what motivated them to go, and who would never have gone themselves nor sent their own sons and daughters.”
Both soldier and citizen are caught in the moral difficulties of patriotism in an age of U.S. military misadventure. In today’s climate, military service might well entail sacrifice on the part of the individual member, yet produce no benefit – material or moral – for the nation that sent her. As during the Vietnam era, we are asked to draw lines between the individual merit of the service member and the morality of the mission. But coming from a tradition that emphasizes individual conscience, it can be difficult to justify those lines. This matter is too important to be taken for granted; each generation should revisit this question for its own time.
Unitarian Universalism has a deep and distinguished history in the United States, and patriotism is entirely consonant with our religious tradition. But I propose that ours is a patriotism of skepticism over blind acceptance, a patriotism of individual conscience over social conformity. We can and should make room to be reflectively, but not reflexively, grateful for the service of our military members. But we also owe it to ourselves and to our nation to understand just what that service means, where it is taking us, and what continues to be done in our name.