I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. Like many other people who are old enough to remember that day, I can tell you where I was and what I was doing on that crisp September morning when the world as we knew it changed forever. At the time I worked at a gym, and within a few days the manager announced that he would be holding a weightlifting competition to raise money for the Red Cross. The gym was quickly decorated with dozens of plastic US flags (all made in China) and flyers were handed out around town and tucked under the wiper blades on many a vehicle’s windshield.
On the day of the event, I got there early as I was participating while also working at the same time. I was genuinely excited about doing something to help in the relief efforts, as were many other people. After all, we were only a couple hours from the Pentagon and many of us, myself included, were in that gym watching live when the second plane slammed into the World Trade Center.
As the event wore on, I could tell that the Red Cross fundraising was the least of the manager’s concerns. In fact, it became quite obvious that he was using the event to sell gym memberships to the public and using their good intentions to facilitate his sales. I was still young but even as the rubble was still smouldering, it dawned on me that people would be sold products, services and political campaigns wrapped in the flag more than ever before.
Not long after that, we invaded Afghanistan. Honestly, I didn’t have a problem with it initially despite all the chest-thumping and Lee Greenwood’s “Proud To Be An American” on repeat. (On a side note, if you ever want me to confess all of my darkest secrets, making me listen to that song on repeat is a good way to do it.)
Then we were sold the Iraq War. I remember the first Gulf War well, despite being in elementary school at the time. In the months leading up the annihilation of the Iraqi forces in Kuwait, we were prepared for it via the news and told how it was a “just war.” I even collected the cards that Topps made with the different pieces of military weaponry that we would use against the Iraqi army. Opposition to that conflict was seemingly non-existent, or at least it was in rural Virginia.
In 2003, I lived in Savannah, Georgia which is less than an hour from the home of the 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart. By this time I had completely cut ties with my conservative roots and it was quite obvious to me that we were invading the wrong country and for the wrong reasons. But this was the era of “freedom fries” and chants of “USA! USA! USA!” as the campaign of shock and awe reduced parts of Iraq to rubble.
Then the soldiers started coming home. As much as I opposed the war, I supported the troops because they didn’t choose the mission to overthrow a dictator who, while a horrible human being, had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. I watched returning soldiers dealing with the invisible wounds of war drink themselves into unconsciousness at the bar night after night. One Army MP, who was a personal friend and coworker, committed suicide by hanging himself in his mother’s closet on Thanksgiving Day in 2005.
Yet, if you were to express any opposition to what was becoming an increasingly unpopular war, you’d be labeled unpatriotic and asked why you didn’t “support the troops” – as if you weren’t a real American if you didn’t believe in an unquestioning, blind acceptance of the War On Terror.
These days, everything is “support the troops.” It has become a punctuation mark on nearly every advertising campaign and seemingly every sporting event. “Support The Troops” and “God Bless America,” you can hear those phrases repeated at anything from a car lot commercial to an NFL or even our local minor league hockey games. But what do the troops get beyond a brief moment of recognition? Honestly, they don’t get jack shit other than a minute of applause and that’s really about it. Why? Because it’s easy to stand for a few moments and chant “USA! USA! USA!” and put a yellow ribbon sticker on your vehicle than it is to try to understand the horrors of combat and the lasting traumas our troops have to endure.
It costs companies next to nothing to claim to support the military. There’s no patent on these patriotic phrases and it’s a cheap, if not free, way for businesses to portray themselves as being caring and socially responsible. Even the companies who state that a portion of their proceeds will go to legitimate charities like the Wounded Warrior Project don’t always disclose how much they’re actually giving. Is it 1% of profits from the sale of their product or is it 10% or just a flat sum every quarter? We don’t know and most of us don’t ask because we’ve satisfied that urge to do something that gives us that feeling that we’ve helped someone without really making any kind of sacrifice of our own.
To summarize, we’ve been fed a false idea of patriotism since 9/11. Currently, we have an increasing number of active members of the military on food stamps and nearly a million veterans currently use the program as well to put food on the table. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, around 12% of the current homeless population are veterans and a disproportionate number of them are African-American or Hispanic. In addition to that, another 1.4 million veterans are also considered to be in danger of becoming homeless.
Yet, we don’t see commercials with abandoned veterans living under an overpass or with addictions to alcohol or drugs, because it doesn’t sell and it isn’t “sexy.” It wasn’t even until very recently that PTSD was acknowledged and that’s what took my friend’s life and destroyed countless others. As a nation, we don’t do enough to actually take care of our veterans and instead settle for well-intentioned but nearly useless tokens of gratitude. Instead of making sure no veteran, or anyone for that matter, has to sleep on a park bench or goes without the help so many desperately need, we allow ourselves to think that a “like” on Facebook or a moment of applause at a sporting event somehow repays millions of men and women for defending our way of life.
And if this shallow, commercial farce is what “supporting our troops” is all about, I don’t want any part of that.
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