The media focus on current and former military members’ involvement in the January 6 assault on the Capitol makes me wonder how much longer Americans will honor those who serve in the military. The press reported that the FBI was investigating the backgrounds of the thousands of National Guardsmen who were called to protect the Capitol during Biden’s inauguration, and that several were told to leave because of detrimental information found about them.
It reminds me of the horrible way that Vietnam veterans were treated by their fellow Americans when they returned from Vietnam. I was not actually spit on, and I don’t know anybody who was, but there was a lot of contempt for veterans, even to the point of calling them baby-killing war criminals. On one hand it is good that there is a Vietnam memorial to remember those killed in Vietnam; on the other, the memorial is anything but heroic. It could be interpreted as a dark slash in the ground, a stark recognition of those who tragically wasted their lives by dying in Vietnam.
It is interesting that the Vietnam memorial was built before the World War II memorial. World War II veterans were widely respected for their service, although the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives” shows that many WW II veterans faced the same kinds of problems that Vietnam veterans faced. Nevertheless, no one felt when they returned that they needed a memorial. Their service was memorial enough.
The World War II memorial and the various Confederate memorials that are being torn down followed similar paths. Neither set of veterans felt that they needed a memorial, but as they began to die off in greater and greater numbers, the people left behind, often wives and daughters, worked to build them memorials to preserve their memory.
I fear that after a generation of honoring veterans, mainly starting after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, we are moving back to suspicion of veterans. Now, instead of being war criminals returning from Vietnam, they are pictured as traitors, insurrectionists, white supremacists who are dangers to the nation. Now the proportion of the populations serving in the military is even smaller than it was during Vietnam, meaning that less and less of the population has any personal understanding of what military service is like. No recent President has served in the military, and few senior political or other public officials have. How many of the “talking heads” pontificating about American politics on TV have served? Not many. There is a group of veterans in the Congress, mostly because of 9/11, but it will probably shrink as time goes on.
I worry that people will more and more view the military as something subversive, a hotbed of Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists, and thus military service will become less and less respected and more and more suspected.