Friday, 13 November 2009

Culture Shock #13 - "Thank you for serving"

I realise I'm going to get killed with this one, way worse than with the hole punches thing. But what the hell, I'm feeling suicidal.

So - just to reduce readership and therefore the number of people wanting to kill me - f you only have time to read one blog post today, don't make it this one, which is a slightly incoherant rant, make it this one, which says what I mean much more eloquently. If you do read it, feel free to respond and explain to me all of the things that I'm undoubtedly missing.

At Fletcher there was a big to-do about the celebration (or not) of Veterans day, which for the non-US among you is the same as our Armistice Day or Rememberance Day. Basically, in the US it's a holiday that most unversities have off. In Fletcher we don't have it off. A lot of the people who've been in the forces or are on study breaks from the forces got very cross about this, and emails were exchanged on the social list, in large numbers. It may not have been intentional, but the tone went something like: 'either you think this should be a day off and spend the day shaking hands with veterans, or you're a wicked person who doesn't appreciate the army. And by the way I'm better than you'. I'm exaggerating, but not much* There was also one martyred soul who posted saying that if just one person would come up to him and shake his hand and say 'thank you for serving', that would be nice.

First things first, I appreciate the military and honour our war dead. There are a lot of very brave people doing a lot of very good work in very difficult circumstances with often vastly insufficient support. And I believe that it's very important indeed to commemorate that.

However, I honestly do not see what a day off (which I would in any case have spent in the library) has to do with celebrating veterans. If I was working and having a proper day off, I would totally spend it having fun, not thinking about war and death. I like my holidays to be fun. And plus, I'm pretty uncomfortable with the 'either you think it should be a day or, or you're evil and ungrateful' juxtaposition. We manage to celebrate Rememberance Day in the UK without a day off, and that's been working really well for us for the last 90 years. Plus, with the poppies and minute's silence thing, at least there is a sense of using it to actually think about the veterans, rather than using it to go hiking/to a museum/to the pub.

The hand shake thing was more of a culture shock thing than a debate thing. Maybe it's my British reserve but I can't imagine anything more awkward, except possibly walking in on someone having sex. Actually, I think the shaking hand thing would be worse, because at least when you walk in on someone having sex you can revert to the 'pretend it never happened' strategy:

Scenario A: Bob is American
Laura: Bob, thank you for serving
Bob: Thank you
Laura: desperately tries to think of something to say, meanwhile feeling like a total lemon. Meanwhile American Bob feels great.
I guess this is good for Bob so if I was selfless I would do it. But I'm hoping that if Bob is my friend he'll be understanding of my cultural disability and let me off.

Scenario B: Bob is British
Laura: Bob, thank you for serving
Bob: Uh... what, you mean you want me to serve you tea or something
Laura: No, in the military
Bob: Oh. Uh, thanks, I guess. Bob then feels very awkward, as does Laura. See final line above. Bob also may wonder if Laura wants something. If Bob has a suspicous mind, he will assume that Laura is being sarcastic, in which case substitue 'Fuck off' for 'oh. Uh, thanks, I guess'.

I think it's like hanging flags outside your house, puting your hand on your heart when you sing the national anthem, and making middle school kids recite the pledge of allegience. I'm just never going to understand it.

The other thing I don't like about it is that it seems to equate 'service' with 'in the military'. Maybe I'm too much of an NGO hippie for my own good... but this makes me uncomfortable. Obviously being in the forces can get you killed, and therefore you need guts to do it. But what about the Red Cross worker in Somalia, or DRC, or Afghanistan, providing assistance to people in need with nothing to protect themselves. A fair few of them get killed, too, as we should remember this week above all, and they do just as much good, if not more good, than your average soldier, usually for worse pay and benefits**, worse insurance, and not much more appreciation. So when I hear people tell me that I should 'thank people for serving', the people I want to thank aren't (or, I should say, aren't just) the people who were in the army in Afghanistan, but my wonderful colleagues who have served in NGOs in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or DRC, or some of the other godforsaken corners of the world. And while I'm at it, I want to beg my Afghan friends' forgiveness for having screwed up so royally that they might be about to be taken over by the Taliban again.

Which brings me to the last thing. The word that sprang to mind, as I read people's facebook statuses saying things like 'Jane would like to thank all the people serving this great nation', was jingoism. And jingoism scares me. Maybe this is just as an outsider, but the message it projected to me was 'aren't we amazing, and aren't our soldiers wonderful'. I listen to US radio, and I didn't really hear anything leading up to veteran's day about how terrible war is. In the UK, I feel like that's all we get. The message of Rememberance day is 'we lost a generation in WWI, and isn't it a terrible waste. Then we let it happen again 20 years later. Afghanistan is a horrific mess. And our soldiers are awesome for going through it'. While the American one felt (at least to me) celebratory, the British one feels (at least to me), commemorative.

I don't want to seem like I'm being too down on the Americans. There are bits about the American version that I like. We tend to focus on commemorating the ones who died, and I do sometimes feel that we should make more of a fuss of the ones that didn't die. We're getting better at it, but still not really good enough. And everyone likes a public holiday. And they give their Afghan translators asylum, unlike the UK, who really are ungrateful bastards (not entirely relevant, but it's a personal gripe). And I do sorta like the way they're so much more open and demonstrative than we are.

But on the whole, I prefer our way. I don't care how great our soldiers are, I want them out of a job, and anything that talks about war and the forces and doesn't hammer home that message contributes to a culture where you can go to war casually, at enormous cost to those affected. If we really want to honour our war dead and support our troops, the best way we can do it is to make sure we have an idea of what we mean when we talk about war - and how it isn't the sanitised images we see on CNN. We need to think about the ways in which we can achieve our ends without war. And we need to make sure, absolutely sure, that the message we hammer home, again and again, every time we talk about war, is that every life we lose is a terrible, tragic waste. I feel that wearing symbols associated with the trenches, holding services and minutes of silence contributes, in a small way, to that goal. And I don't think that 'thank you for serving this great nation' does that***.

The blog at the top says a lot of this much better than I can. But I feel better for getting it off my chest.

* If you're going to disagree, consider some of the comments:
'if you don't think it should be a public holiday, maybe you should go to memorial steps, look at the names of people killed, and think about it'
Response to the above: 'I agree with you. But not everyone is like us'

** Does not apply to the UN

*** If I'm missing some hidden cultural thing that means it does, feel free to enlighten me.

1 comment:

  1. Most Americans are quite simply incapable thinking rationally when it comes to matters of patriotism (the grown-up, "Civilized" country version of nationalism), particularly when the discussion is around the use of American military force abroad.

    There is no logical link between combat troops in Afghanistan or Iraq and American "freedom." The notion that there is is pure propoganda.