“Thank you for your service”

Today is Veteran’s Day in the US where the country is encouraged to recognize the members of its armed forces. I have become aware that members of the general public, when they encounter service members in public, will often tell them “Thank you for your service”.

It would never have occurred to me to say such a thing to a veteran. These are people who were willing to risk their lives, to be shot at and injured, sometimes grievously, to suffer PTSD and other traumas that last long after the event and often in the cause of futile or even wrong conflicts waged by politicians who have other agendas than defending the nation, surely requires gratitude on the part of the rest of us. But it is precisely for that reason that telling a stranger who happens to be a veteran “Thank you for your service” seems so glib and shallow.

It appears that some veterans seem to feel a similar sense of discomfort at being thanked in this way. Here is Chris Martin.

I fought in Afghanistan. When people learn of my military service, I get a variety of comments — none more common than “Thank you for your service.” My response sometimes surprises people. I look them in the eye and say, “You’re welcome.”

Many civilians may genuinely wish to have played a larger role in America’s recent conflicts — if only from the home front. In lieu of participation, they offer thanks. Society has normalized this practice, with the result that some Americans consider uttering thanks to be a fulfillment of their patriotic duties.

This helps explain the surprise many people show when I say “You’re welcome.” All I mean is that I am proud to have fought for my country. But often the thank you means more to the person offering it than to the person being thanked.

When I sat on a panel in front of 75 Tillman Military Scholars — some of our best and brightest post-9/11 veterans — in July, I asked the audience who felt uncomfortable when thanked for their service. Almost every hand went up.

This Veterans Day, on behalf of my fellow Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, I say to the country: There’s no need to thank us. You’re welcome for our service. But take a minute to talk with us. Ask us where we served, learn about what we did in the military and find out what’s next in our lives.

I know people who are veterans. I know that for many, having been in a war is a painful memory that they would just as soon forget if they could. So I leave it up to them to bring it up if they wish to and am happy to talk about their experiences with them. But if they don’t, I don’t either.


  1. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I know people who are veterans. I know that for many, having been in a war is a painful memory that they would just as soon forget if they could. So I leave it up to them to bring it up if they wish to and am happy to talk about their experiences with them. But if they don’t, I don’t either.

    I believe that “Thank you for your service” arose with what was perceived to be the neglect or even disdain that Vietnam Veterans faced

    Vietnam Vets were said to be annoyed, at the least, by their ill treatment by the American public who seemed to blame them for the US defeat in Vietnam.

    “Thank you for your service” acknowledges the explicit sacrifices of our troops whether that is physical, mental, or even just the opportunity costs of becoming a soldier rather than going to work, and it does it in a non political manner. It’s a personal thank you to the person behind the uniform for choosing how they did at cost to themselves.

    My read of Martin’s essay is different from yours. I don’t see him asking people to stop with their acknowledgements.

    This Veterans Day, on behalf of my fellow Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, I say to the country: There’s no need to thank us. You’re welcome for our service. But take a minute to talk with us. Ask us where we served, learn about what we did in the military and find out what’s next in our lives.

    He’s actually raising the bar in a manner that the first half of your response seems aligned with, but the second half of your response rejects.

  2. invivoMark says

    I could never say that phrase. In large part, this is because I do not think it is fair to equate military employment (I don’t like calling it “service”) with something like “defending America” or any such nonsense for which I would be grateful.

    It’s a euphemism. Military actions are a huge moral gray area, and I don’t think I would support most of them even if I knew all about them. Might it be more accurate to say, “Thank you for murdering brown people on the other side of the world?” Or how about, “Thank you for contributing to America’s imperialistic interests?”

    There is no question that the average military job is a dangerous and difficult one, but I am not sold on the idea that it’s one worth doing. I can’t think of a single armed conflict in which the US has been involved in the past 50 years where the military involvement of the US had an unambiguously positive effect for most people. I am not strictly a pacifist, but I don’t take the wisdom and caution of military leaders for granted.

    To make matters worse, in every war there are war criminals. Chelsea Manning showed the world some awful ones in the footage she released from Iraq. If I tell a veteran, “Thank you for your service,” could I be thanking a cruel, heartless villain for indiscriminately murdering civilians just for fun? The thought makes me nauseous.

    And so, I never thank veterans for their service. I think many of them mean well, but that is not enough of an excuse.

  3. Pen says

    These are people who were willing to risk their lives, to be shot at and injured, sometimes grievously, to suffer PTSD and other traumas that last long after the event and often in the cause of futile or even wrong conflicts waged by politicians who have other agendas than defending the nation, surely requires gratitude on the part of the rest of us.

    Yes, we’re required to turn aside from the notion that ultimately they had personal moral responsibility in choosing to fight in the futile or wrong conflict. After all they’ve suffered, all they would have suffered for a refusal, that would be too cruel, wouldn’t it? And so, in a sense, we consent to whatever was done?

  4. jarppu says

    I agree with this comment so much. So many horrible things have been done by America’s wars. I’ve never understood why I should thank veterans for enabling it.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    The best way to support, and thank, the troops?

    1) Don’t send them to war unless there really is no other choice
    2) If they are sent, send enough, and make sure they have what they need
    3) Take care of those who come back, and the families of those who don’t

    Sadly, we tend to fail on all three, while mouthing cheap and meaningless platitudes.

  6. Wylann says

    Here’s what I posted on my FB page:

    To truly honor our veterans and their families, let’s all work towards making the world a place where we don’t need war. No killing for religion, no fighting for territory, no killing for ideology. We, Homo sapiens, can, and should, do better. Let’s all try to rise above our nationalism, our petty tribalism, and try to remember that ‘they’ are just like us. We are all humans. We only have one brief shot at this life, so let’s try to leave the world a better place for ALL.

  7. Wylann says

    And I would go the extra mile and make a note to thank all the families that have to put up with long deployments, being uprooted, often every couple of years, and not really knowing where they might end up. Yes, I grew up in the Air Farce, I sometimes feel like I served 20 years, just because I was constantly losing friends, being uprooted, etc.
    The flip side is that I got to see more of the world before I graduated high school than many people see their entire lives.

  8. says

    I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to wonder if the lack of a draft makes us more willing to accept sending other peoples kids off to war.

  9. smrnda says

    Given shitty job prospects these days, I can’t exactly fault 18 year old high school graduates, faced with a bad economy for taking a job they knew wouldn’t turn them down. I say this as someone who, besides being ineligible for health reasons, was affluent enough to know I would go to college, that it would be paid for, and that I’d then get a job and would be alright. I’m too privileged to judge people for signing up for the military.

  10. smrnda says

    If we had a draft, it would just send *those people* to war -- non-college students and such, with a lot of affluent white kids never at risk, so I’m not sure.

  11. says

    I remember worrying about the draft. It stopped a couple of years before I was eligible. Lots of my slightly older coworkers at my first job were either drafted or had joined non army services because of the draft.

  12. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Fine, then as someone who’s been dirt poor my entire life, I’ll say it: if you enlist in any branch of the United States military, you have become a willing accomplice to all the crimes of the American empire. I won’t thank you for your “service}, I spit on your “service”.

  13. says

    I agree with the veterans you mentioned, Prof. I served in the Canadian Forces, and was proud to have done so; there were no hot wars in my time, but I did spend a fair bit of time on the “front line” of the Cold one. We did exercises a couple of times a month, preparing us for when the Russians came, but thankfully never had to use anything we learned.

    I joined because I believed in the Canadian approach to UN peacekeeping; most CF members in those days did at least one, and often several, tours as peacekeepers, in Cyprus, the former Yugoslavia, Golan Heights, the disaster of Rwanda, Somalia, many places. I had a couple of opportunities for posting to peacekeeping ops, but decided to take the one to (West) Germany so I could improve my language skills in French and German (our base was very close to the French border, and there was a French base in the next town over within WG).

    But when someone says “Thank you for your service,” it just feels weird and uncomfortable, especially as I had the fortune to never be posted anywhere hot (I don’t mean temperature). It’s also weird because my family has had a long, long tradition of military service: all four of my grandparents served in uniform in WWII in the UK, as a merchant seaman, an infantry sergeant major, an anti-aircraft spotter/gunner, and as an army driver. My father’s birth father (not included in the above list, he left my nana before dad was born) was an OSS agent, captured and sent to Mejdanek, who then escaped from that camp, and with a buddy made his way north through the Baltic states to Finland, then Sweden and home.

  14. left0ver1under says

    Having or not having a draft makes no difference. Those with “connections” dodged military service or combat, and those who wanted cushy or glamourous jobs got them (e.g. Wet-Start McCain). That’s how it was when there was a draft

    When schools are unfunded
    And kids don’t get their diplomas
    They get used for gun boat diplomacy
    Disproportionately black or brown we see
    Bullet catchers for the slave master

    -- “Winter Of The Long Hot Summer”, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    It took me quite a while to locate the following quote from my email archive, and subsequent web-searching has not confirmed or contradicted its veracity (just provided a few iterations), but the perspective expressed needs saying:

    “When someone says my son died fighting for his country, I say, ‘No, the suicide bomber who killed my son died fighting for his country.’”

    — Father of American Soldier Chase Beattie, KIA in Iraq

  16. left0ver1under says

    “Thanking” ex-soldiers is not about showing gratitiude, it’s about smug self-satisfaction and flag waving by those “thanking” them. If people really cared about them, they would be offering condolences for their lost innocence and their dead friends.

    In May 2013, a series of pictures made the rounds, showing the faces of British soldiers -- before ever seeing combat, during, and after. You can see the lost hope, joy and innocence in their faces and especially their eyes.


    Those who join “professional” armies usually do it for one of several reasons, though there are probably others:

    -- “tradition” or family and peer pressure
    -- believing propaganda, ignorance of actual motivations for war
    -- being driven by political or religious ideology
    -- nationalism under the false claim of “patriotism”
    -- a willingness to commit violence, racism
    -- gangs seeking military training
    -- financial desperation, lack of educational and other employement opportunities

    The last is the only one where I can empathize with and be supportive of them. I wouldn’t “spit on their service” as dypsomniak said, but I certainly don’t owe them “thanks” when wars today are driven by corporate profits, religious ideology, nationalism, and theft of other nations’ resources.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    A little further digging reveals that only one Beattie has been reported as dying in Iraq, a Sgt. Clifford E. Beattie who was killed by an IED in 2011, several years after the emails citing the quote, and two years after the date on the citation I linked to.

    So the attribution, at least, fails -- but the truth of the statement stands.

  18. smrnda says

    Given your position as opposed to mine, you are entitled to do so in a way that I do not feel that I can.

    I will, however, commend you for sticking to principles at all costs!

  19. Mary Jo says

    My goodness, you seem so naïve. Soldiers are trained and compelled to kill people. Please do not say they commit murder. Two of my uncles saw combat in Korea, they cried about what they did in their dying years. You know, I think one of my uncles did something that would be considered a war crime. I cannot hold it against him. He was an 18 year old in the heat of combat. He regretted what he did all his life. We do not know what we are capable of until we are in that situation and I doubt you or I will ever be in a combat situation. Yes, those boys in the video released by Chelsea Manning come across as heartless and cruel and they should be tried for war crimes. But please try to understand that they are trained to look at war as a video game.

  20. twosheds1 says

    So many of my Facebook friends mouthed their platitudes about honoring veterans, thanking them for their service, etc. Rather than doing that, which seems so vapid, I wrote an e-mail to my senator, urging him not to cut veteran’s benefits as a way to reduce the federal deficit.

  21. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Seriously Professor Singham, read your commenters here. Think about what they write in terms of the civil war, WWI, WWII, Korea, even the kids sent off to Vietnam or the kids that joined in the wake of 9/11.

    It’s the attitudes of your readers and probably many at “Free Thought” blogs that has the rest of America convinced that saying “Thanks for your service” is a small and reasonable act.

    Consider the Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps history as liberal Democrat lawyer suing in civil rights cases: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Phelps#Civil_rights_cases. Ask yourself how many days before dypsomaniak joins the Westboro Baptist Church.

  22. Mary Jo says

    Dr. Singham, I cannot claim to know what wtfwhateverd00d is suggesting but I was stunned by many of the commenters. Invivomark says that those who served are murderers and won’t thank them because he suspects they may be a “cruel, heartless villain for indiscriminately murdering civilians just for fun.” Jarppu agrees and adds that veterans enable America to do horrible things. Penn feels that ” they had personal moral responsibility in choosing to fight in the futile or wrong conflict.” Dysomniac wants to spit on their service. leftOver1under wants to withhold his thanks also. Wow.

  23. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I think it’s pretty clear that there are many wars in the US history that sadly became necessary and we (US and the world) are all better off for them having been fought.

    Revolutionary War
    Civil War
    The Afghanistan routing of the Taliban and hunt for Bin Laden

    And in many of these wars, we do just up and draft our young, and we, society, encourages others with jingoistic messages and hopes for economic advancement, education, and even the prospect of helping other countries after a disaster like Haiyan. Many people went to Vietnam on the heels of Korea and WWII and with messages to fight what they were told was communist repression of a democratic government. Those were good motives.

    I am not going to blame, as your readers seem wont and eager to do, the troops for wars that if bad, are all of society’s bad, not just the soldier’s burden themselves.

    Read what Mary Jo says. She captures it well.

  24. Mano Singham says

    People obviously have different views and I read them all. But I am not sure what you want me to do about them.

  25. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I’m not asking you to do anything about them.

    I’m trying to provide some insight as to why so much of the US will thank soldiers for their service. It comes almost directly out of the attitudes in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that are very similar to the attitudes expressed today by many of your readers and by many other “sophisticated” progressives.

  26. flex says

    I’m with CaitieCat,

    I served in the USAF from 85-89. Nothing really going on, but if there had been, in my position I would have been well out of it.

    I’ve found that many of us who served as part of the regular military are a little confused by being thanked. We joined for personal reasons, mainly related to opportunity or escape. We didn’t join out of an excess of nationalism or patriotism. We joined because we would get free training, or a collage fund, or even simply a job to escape poor prospects in the inner-cities or far rural parts of our nation. We certainly didn’t join up for any random individual to thank us years later at some random time.

    I give thanks to people who help me. I thank servers at restaurants, I thank customer service people on the phone, I thank co-workers who help me with a problem. I often than people out of politeness. I get thanks for similar reasons; I loan out a book, I work at a recycling event, I help someone change a tire. I get thanks for helping.

    When I volunteered for service I wasn’t doing so to help you. How did anything I do help you? You might as well thank me for testing your airbag controller in your car, my current job. Maybe you’d like to thank me for designing the dashboard dimmer in your Ford? I spent 15 years doing that, much longer than I spent repairing seismometers in the USAF. Should I be thanking you for building the Sears website? Or managing a McDonalds? Or overseeing the accounting department? Or for whatever job you do? Thanking people all the time for doing the job they agreed to do is meaningless. Meaningless thanks are, in fact, meaningless.

    Should I thank Mano for teaching students I’ve never met at a collage I’ve never visited? The impact Mano is having on the world is a lot greater than my four years in the military. Maybe he would like my thanks, but more likely, he would find it awkward and a little confusing. If he was at a party and the guests, once they found out that he was a professor, all made a point of thanking him for teaching, not their own kids, but just thanking him for teaching, it would be odd. I respect Mano, and appreciate the work he does, but he made the choice to do that work without any input from me and his teaching is invisible to my life. I do thank Mano for the blog, and for providing the opportunity for me to bloviate in the comments, but that should be quite comprehensible.

    I’m not suggesting that my dislike of thanks for my service is anything personal; It’s nothing personal, because my military service is also nothing personal. It has nothing to do with the person giving me those thanks.

    This is also the third time I’ve tried to write this. All the earlier drafts were significantly longer, and I’m afraid even this version doesn’t convey the contempt I feel for people who through either ignorance or jingoism try to make my military service about helping them personally. I still don’t feel like I’ve adequately expressed myself, but like a hole in a tooth I’m going to keep poking at it until I’ve posted this. So I’m simply going to post, and make corrections and/or clarifications if my meaning isn’t clear.

  27. says

    Well-said, wing-wiper. Sig pig in full agreement. 🙂

    In fact, I think the idea of thanking teachers generally is a good one. Teachers do a hell of a lot to contribute to making society liveable. I think teachers at all levels are underpaid. I volunteered to join a military in a possibly-combat position (well, definitely combat, if the Russkies had come over the Fulda Gap), and I still think teachers are WAY more worthy of being generally thanked, and you couldn’t pay me enough to be a teacher of children. They’d have me gibbering in days.

    We should spread that as a meme among former servicepeople. 🙂

    “Don’t thank me. Thank your teachers!”

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