Recently, I was asked why many of the stories I post pertain to rude things said to troops upon their return to the States. Surely, the reader argued, they were not hearing only negative comments, right? Not everybody is misinformed or downright rude. This is true. Only one remark out of perhaps ten is inappropriate. It has to do with our selective memories.
When I worked for a building contractor, I remember him wisely telling me that if he did a superb job on a project, the clients would tell one, maybe two of their friends about it, and he would receive free marketing via word-of-mouth. He then proceeded to say that if he did a poor job, they would tell TEN of their friends. For whatever reason, we concentrate far more on the negative than the positive. The same applies to all of us.
I have had countless nice things said to me about my military service. I have been bought innumerable free drinks, offered free lodging, and been forbidden to pay for my meals at random restaurants and diners across the country. They all wished to say thank you. I have even attended a wedding where the entire wedding party raised a glass to toast me – before they had done so for the bride and groom. There are many other heartwarming experiences which I cannot recall, mostly because they're too numerous to mention. Nevertheless, it takes concentration to remember these. Other things made a more lasting impression.
More often than not, I remember the day I pulled into a gas station and bumped into a gentleman who I vaguely knew, and he immediately piped up with, "hey, I just ran into another old Jarhead [Marine]…Said this is the stupidest damn war we've been in yet." I did not respond.
Or the time I was chatting with a lady about the Iraq War when a young man wandered up and abruptly interjected his firm conviction that troops are an uneducated, lesser class of American who mindlessly carry out barbaric acts at the commands of brainwashed, egocentric officers. When he was done, I walked away.
These are what I remember the most clearly.
A friend of mine, after a score of warm handshakes and kind remarks, remembers a woman driving by and throwing food at him as he exited an airport terminal. Another friend remembers the day a random stranger remarked that he was GLAD my friend's comrades had died in Iraq. After all, he said, they were killing innocent women and children. He also remembers the time a college professor sharply rebuked him in a college course with a retort of, "I know FAR more about war than you do." That professor, incidentally, had never served.
Another friend remembers unsolicited comments from an uncle (with no military experience), explaining to him how the conduct of this war was absolutely ridiculous and paralleled the mistakes made in Vietnam. He was at a family reunion, and ended up escaping to another room – where he received more questions from another relative.
Years from now, as history books incorporate the "Iraq War" into their pages, there will be significantly more writing devoted to prisoner mistreatment at Abu Gharaib than to the thousands of heroic acts by individual servicemembers and their units. Little notice will be given to the improvements in Iraqi Security Forces, but much to the few Iraqi Soldiers that turned their weapons on their US counterparts. For reasons I cannot explain, we fixate on the negative.
Yet if this is a fault of those in the US Armed Forces, it is similarly a fault that afflicts all humankind. For whatever reason, we quickly forget the encouraging remarks and remember only those that wounded us. So why perpetuate the problem and continue mentioning them? Well, it's easy.
What a US servicemember most remembers about his or her experiences will become the backbone of his or her perception of military service as a whole. We are certainly not the sum or product of our memories, but we are definitely strongly influenced by them. If a Soldier remembers the hurtful remarks, he or she may very well walk away from proud service wounded or bitter – even if the negative comments were only two and the positive ninety-eight.
For as long as we are free to voice our opinions in the United States, there will be a handful who sharply and rudely disagree with us. Such is the nature of free speech. We are permitted to say as we wish, however wrong, hurtful, or inflammatory it may be. I have no desire to change this, because these are Constitutionally-protected rights – and they are what make America great.
Nor am I attempting to "train" the public on what they should or should not say to a returning Soldier, Marine, etc. They are welcome to say as they wish. My purpose is simply to show them what potentially damaging and lasting effects a single poorly-considered remark may have on a veteran. For it is not the nice things we remember, but the negative.
A veteran who remembers a civilian saying something horribly inappropriate to him may in time conclude that the public is ill-informed, rude, and not worth his time. Similarly, a civilian whose sole memory of the military is Abu Gharaib and the few Soldiers' actions that tarnished a generation of men and women who served honorably, may reach the conclusion that veterans are all criminals acting under the sanction of the federal government. Obviously, neither presumption is correct.
For this reason, I share positive stories about troops. I do not focus on the mistakes they make because we all make them. Hopefully, readers will clearly see that the military as a whole is far greater, and far nobler than the few bad apples in their ranks. And I DO focus on the negative remarks said to them because I am hopeful that readers will better understand what lasting consequences there may be for a single, inconsiderate statement. My desire is to narrow the divide between the military and the public, mainly through arming the public with more information.
Am I painting civilians in a negative light or hanging them out to dry? Some might argue that, but it is unintentional. Perhaps, when I have completed my embed with the US troops in Iraq, I will "embed" with the public and write the stories of how they've been terribly insulted by veterans or servicemembers, for I will quickly grant that many in the military do not treat the public (their collective bosses) as they should. Perhaps readers among the military ranks will see them and learn how to better address the public. Both parties have grounds for improvement.
Yet for the time being, my desire is to share the servicemembers' stories. Their service alone will drive a wedge between them and the general public, since it is entry into a world and a subculture that is, at best, poorly understood by outsiders. And in so doing, by helping the public understand what these men and women go through and how to best approach them, perhaps the negative remarks will taper off a bit. Perhaps veterans won't feel the need to walk into a crowd ready to quickly defend themselves. Perhaps they can drop their guard and feel that they've fully and comfortably returned to their homes. Perhaps they will no longer "pull both triggers" when a single offensive comment is heard. And finally, perhaps fewer will take their own lives.
The public could stand to learn a bit, and so could the military. At present, my part in all of it is to introduce the public to the hearts and minds of the men and women who serve them. And as both camps lay aside their weapons and drop their guards, I am hopeful that the veterans see a public that, for the most part, is thankful and receives them well. Mistakes should only be remembered so we no longer repeat them.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved