A West Point faculty members discusses a ritual performed by civilians when they encounter members of the American armed services:
These meetings between soldier and civilian turn quickly into street theater. The soldier is recognized with a handshake. There’s often a request for a photograph or the tracing of a six-degrees-of-separation genealogy: “My wife’s second cousin is married to a guy in the 82nd Airborne.” Each encounter concludes with a ritual utterance: “Thank you for your service.”…
The successful reincorporation of veterans into civil society entails a complex, evolving process. Today, the soldier’s homecoming has been further complicated by the absence of a draft, which removes soldiers from the cultural mainstream, and by the fact that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have little perceptible impact on the rhythms of daily life at home.
Whether anyone ever spat on an American soldier returning from Vietnam is a matter of debate. The sociologist and veteran Jerry Lembcke disputed such tales in “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.” Apocryphal or not, this image has become emblematic of an era’s shame, and of the failure of civilians to respond appropriately to the people they had sent to fight a bankrupt war.
The specter of this guilt — this perdurable archetype of the hostile homecoming — animates today’s encounters, which seem to have swung to the other unthinking extreme. “Thank you for your service” has become a mantra of atonement. But, as is all too often the case with gestures of atonement, substance has been eclipsed by mechanical ritual. After the engagement, both parties retreat to separate camps, without a significant exchange of ideas or perspectives having passed between them.
The writer goes on to suggest that this ritual is better than some alternatives but is ultimately a “poor substitute” for needed larger discussions about how war affects individuals who fight in them and how society should respond.
I wonder if anyone could uncover when this ritual began and then became the norm. The article contains the opinions of several soldiers regarding the ritual and it would also be interesting to hear comments from citizens who have said this. Rituals don’t develop because they are pointless: I suspect civilians feel they are doing something good on their end, even if they may be unaware of how it is received on the other end. What percentage of civilians would approach a uniformed soldier if presented the opportunity? Does the usage of the phrase differ by political background and/or support for certain military actions?
In the end, is there anything that a civilian could say in a casual interaction that would adequately address all the complicated issues involved? And is this ritual evidence of what some have suggested is a growing gap between those in those who are in the military versus those who pursue other opportunities?