This past weekend, a local college football game was billed as “Military Appreciation Day.” Throughout the game, retired, current and future members of the nation’s armed forces were ushered out onto the field during breaks in the play to enjoy a few moments in the spotlight and to soak in the applause of the thousands gathered. Time and again, the stadium crowd was exhorted to rise and express its collective thanks to the various servicemen and women for their sacrifice and dedicated efforts on behalf of the nation.
Events like this have become commonplace in 21st Century America. Thirty or 40 years ago, in the aftermath of the disastrous and intensely unpopular Vietnam War, such celebrations were much rarer. As producer Ken Burns’ recently concluded public television series on the war illustrated so well, late 20th Century America was home to a much higher level of ambivalence toward the military and the idea that it always represented the nation at its very best.
Today, however, that debate seems to have been settled. Almost all Americans—even those who still harbor serious doubts about the nation’s vast war-waging budget and the efficacy of its many ongoing armed exploits—readily acknowledge the service and sacrifice of the women and men who don the uniform. At Saturday’s game, the football teams themselves interrupted their concentration on the contest at hand at times to join in the applause for those being honored. Even those athletes who have made use of the National Anthem in recent months to demonstrate against injustice in American policy and politics have gone to great lengths to make sure everyone knows their beef is not with the people who serve in the military.
Thou dost applaud too much?
So, why the change? What caused our frequently fractured nation to find so much common ground in this one area in recent years?
Several factors have no doubt contributed; the fading Vietnam memory, the end of the draft and the overall reconstruction of the military as an all-volunteer institution, the sometimes successful armed interventions that have occurred in recent years and the comparative reduction in casualties certainly stand out. Add to this the billions spent by various military branches on advertising, image burnishing and improved news coverage and messaging, and it’s not terribly surprising that attitudes have shifted.
It’s also true and worth reiterating that many people who blamed servicemen and women for the Vietnam debacle are now better informed and understand the difference between the civilians who give the orders and those who simply carry them out.
Here, however, is another important factor that offers much more of an explanation than a lot of us might care to admit: the outsourcing of sacrifice.
Think about it: One key reason that so many of us are so willing and even anxious to celebrate the military these days is the altered nature of the American experiment. We long and feel obliged to applaud the military because what they do is so utterly unfamiliar to most of us.
Several decades ago, sacrifice and self-deprivation were not foreign or exotic concepts to most Americans. Rather, they were ideas that were deeply embedded in the national psyche and day-to-day reality. Most of our forebears took sacrifice and self-deprivation as givens.
Since even before the birth of the republic, most Americans had sacrificed and suffered mightily—both for the good of the nation as a whole and for the improved wellbeing of their children and grandchildren. Even well into the 20th Century, the sacrifices of the world wars and the Great Depression were fresh in the national memory.
When John Kennedy asked Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” the message instantly resonated. The same was true when the nation pulled together to heed the murdered president’s promise to land a human on the moon prior to 1970.
In the decades since, however, with the elevation of the “free market” to near-divine status and the nation’s success in spreading 24-hour-a-day consumerism to ever-further reaches of the population, our collective experience with and openness to personal and societal sacrifice have been greatly tempered. The ultimate and most tragic expression of this transformation came in the days immediately following the September 11 attacks when President George W. Bush infamously called upon his fellow citizens to respond, not with shared sacrifice in the form of higher taxes, or even a few moments of introspection, but by redoubling their commitment to shop.
Simply put, one of the reasons many of us applaud with such fervor for the military men and women (and, on occasion, first responders) in 2017 is to mask our own lack of sacrifice and self-deprivation. We have outsourced these duties to others and when we are confronted with that reality—especially in public—we make up for our feelings of guilt by cheering loudly and pressuring others to do likewise.
When the cheering is over, we quickly return to our lives as modern hyper-consumers who crave and demand ever-bigger homes, fancier gadgets, cheaper prices, better services and lower taxes.
Real world consequences
What’s especially damaging and tragic about this transformation is not the celebration and praise heaped upon the military, of course. Rather, the problem is the destructive societal disconnect and lack of capacity it highlights.
By consistently outsourcing/purchasing sacrifice, we have made ourselves into a nation in which pulling together to lift up the common good is a foreign and terrifying concept. The examples abound.
Consider this week’s horrific tragedy in Las Vegas and the countless other mass shootings that have plagued the nation. It’s because of the utter unwillingness of a small but intensely motivated group of gun owners to make even the slightest sacrifice for the common good that such events continue to occur. If guns in this nation were simply treated like automobiles – ubiquitous but highly dangerous machines that require thorough regulation—it’s a sure thing that thousands of Americans would be (and would have been) spared early deaths.
Or consider the subject of climate change and environmental degradation generally. It’s quite possibly within our capacity to build a sustainable economy that would not threaten the survival of the human species, but it would require some degree of change and sacrifice. For too many Americans, however, even the idea of a smaller car or house (or perhaps a different diet or even a slightly less active air conditioner in summer) is an utter anathema.
The list goes on and on. From our miserly refusal to pay the taxes that could fund a decent social safety net, modern infrastructure and top flight public schools for all to our unwillingness to welcome immigrants who might force us to open ourselves to different peoples and cultures, we Americans have become a fearful and suspicious lot that, far too often, obsesses about grabbing and holding onto what we can, rather than thinking about the common good.
Ironically, such attitudes even carry through to our treatment of members of the military and first responders—fellow citizens upon whom we love to shower applause even as we deny many of them decent pay and healthcare.
The bottom line
Not all military celebrations stem from the guilt of those applauding. It’s true that many celebrants served themselves or have family members who have served. Many others who haven’t served are, nonetheless, heartfelt in their expressions of appreciation. What’s more, sacrifice remains a big part of the lives of many low-income people and a huge percentage of new immigrants.
All that said, there can be no doubt that those celebrations—and, more importantly, the nation and its government—would look, sound and feel very different if sacrifice and self-denial were somehow celebrated and made a part of day-to-day American life in the same way that conspicuous consumption is.
Sadly, in the era of Trump, such a change seems likely to remain elusive for some time to come.
Rob Schofield, Director of Research at NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer, commentator and trainer.