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“Thank You for Your Service” Gets a Stress Test

With a single trigger pull, we could be reliving Kent State circa 1970.
June 16, 2020
“Thank You for Your Service” Gets a Stress Test
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (R) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) testify during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 31, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On a recent edition of Fox News Sunday, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, the retired admiral who led the charge of four-stars taking to the web to criticize President Trump’s Bible stunt and threat to invoke the Insurrection Act, said this:

I see [Trump’s willingness to use U.S. military troops in a domestic policing role] reemerging from a war . . . where the United States military lost the respect and the trust of the American people. We’ve regained that and in very short order should we get into conflict in our own streets, there’s a very significant chance we could lose that trust that has taken us fifty-plus years to restore.

Mullen knows of what he speaks. He graduated from the Naval Academy in the spring of 1968 and was immediately sent to the Vietnam War. In the months that followed, public opposition to the war grew as the North Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive and Life magazine published graphic photos of the My Lai massacre. Whatever justification a succession of presidents had sold to the American people as they escalated the effort (including increasing draft quotas), Baby Boomers were by and large rejecting the notion given them by the Greatest Generation that the war would be quick or just.

Images of soldiers and Marines burning huts and displacing innocents were beamed into homes nightly, and CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite—“the most trusted man in America”—declared the war would end as a stalemate that the United States needed to negotiate its way out of. The anti-war movement spread beyond college campuses and into the streets of cities and towns across the nation, and as it did, those returning from battle were treated not as heroes but, at best, victims and, at worst, criminals. As a result, service members hid whatever pride they had in their job status as they dared to venture outside of their bases lest they be insulted or even assaulted.

I saw this firsthand as the son of a Marine Corps attack pilot. I was proud of him, as any schoolboy would be, but because we lived in a regular neighborhood and not on a base, I was also acutely aware that not everyone around our family shared my pride. And while my dad did his best to instill in my brothers and me the fundamentals of service and duty, he also advised us that we should be cautious about telling our friends that he’d served in Vietnam because there was no telling how their teenaged siblings or parents might react. My father grew so frustrated with how his fellow Americans were treating those who answered the call to serve—traditionally a respected and laudable act—that he accepted attaché duty, which moved the family to Holland for three years, so that we might not have to be exposed to it.

When we got back to the States, the Vietnam War was over, and the national healing process had begun. While 18-year-old males still had to register for selective service, the draft was ended, which by itself was a big step toward regaining public support for the military, especially among college-aged citizens and their parents who no longer had to worry about getting dragged into an occupation not of their choosing, not to mention a war. By the time I walked out of the Naval Academy as a newly commissioned ensign, the Reagan years were in full swing. Massive defense spending underwrote the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the sole global superpower.

The U.S. military’s post-Vietnam reputational rehab continued with Desert Storm, the first war featuring technology custom-suited for the 24/7 news cycle. The multiple-times-daily battle briefs made stars out of military leaders like Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf as they used footage from stealth fighter forward-looking infrared cameras to show the cable TV-watching world how war could be fought with great precision without hazarding civilians. The whole thing was over in 100 days, and the original objective was achieved. No mission creep. No nation building. There was even a victory parade in D.C. when the troops returned home. The all-volunteer force had cool stuff and they could win.

Just over a decade later, the homeland was attacked by 19 Islamic terrorists who hijacked four airliners and turned them into cruise missiles that took down the World Trade Center, severely damaged one side of the Pentagon, and killed 2,977 civilians. President George W. Bush sent the military to Afghanistan using the logic of “we’ll fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them here.” A year and a half later, he doubled down on that thesis and invaded Iraq.

For their part, the American people responded with overwhelming support for the troops regardless of how they felt about the wars. At its peak, the “Sea of Goodwill” consisted of over 40,000 organizations created to give the military—both active duty and veterans—and their families goods and services ranging from employment assistance, access to top-notch medical care (especially for the wounded) and educational benefits to reduced pricing on meals and movie tickets. “Thank you for your service” went from a simple expression of gratitude to a national tagline, and the “hero” label was liberally applied to all who served, even those in boot camp or attending service academies.

But, like Admiral Mullen, those who bear the scars of a time when the military was out of favor across the cultural landscape know this phenomenon isn’t permanent, and we saw evidence of that fact with President Trump’s most recent threats to deploy active duty units to quell the rioting and looting in cities across America. He even went so far as to direct the secretary of defense to mobilize one of the U.S. Army’s “ready brigades,” designed to respond to foreign threats on short notice, to Washington, D.C.

Of course, in what is another data point proving the fact that irony has died during the Trump presidency, on May 18, in an attempt to counter the assertion made in a Wall Street Journal editorial that he was being impulsive with his Afghanistan exit strategy, POTUS tweeted that his pullout was justified because “we never really fought to win. We are more of a police force than the mighty military that we are, especially now as rebuilt.” Less than a month later, he was spring-loaded to use the military’s most elite troops as—wait for it—a police force, and worse, a domestic police force. At the same time, it was widely reported that his secretary of defense advised governors to “dominate the battlespace” in dealing with uprisings in their states.

And with those actions came the beginnings of an attitude—particularly in protesters who don’t share the “Boomer guilt” of those who avoided service during the Vietnam era or are too young to remember the national feelings around 9/11—that the military is a tool for evildoers and those in it aren’t automatically heroes worthy of discounts and priority access to events. Videos surfaced of crowds booing military convoys as they arrived on the scene. These civilians don’t discriminate between the 82nd Airborne and Maryland National Guard (plus the post-9/11 wars have blurred the distinction in how they’ve been used). To them it’s all just a sea of khaki-colored body armor ready to inflict harm. They aren’t a calming presence; they’re an occupying force, and in short order, the locals treat them with disdain instead of respect.

The current commander-in-chief accuses those who preceded him of not fighting to win when pulling the lever of military power, but what does “winning” mean if troops are used as police in American streets? Military failures like the Beirut bombing in ’83 have shown the folly of “presence as deterrence” as the sole objective. What are the rules of engagement in urban environments? What’s the desired end state? The fact no official articulated any of this before the fact is evidence that none of them considered the details or, worse, the unintended consequences of indulging the most cowardly and impulsive president in modern times.

“Thank you for your service” has a shelf life. All Americans, particularly veterans, would do well to remember that and do their part in guarding against the misuse of the military for other than its constitutionally mandated purpose. With a single trigger pull by an active duty soldier directed toward a fellow American—even in self-defense—we could be at Kent State circa ’70 all over again.

Ward Carroll

Ward Carroll flew F-14 Tomcats for fifteen years after graduating from the Naval Academy. He was named Naval Institute Press Author of the Year in 2001 for his debut novel Punk's War. He is also the author of Punk's Fight and Punk's Wing. He was also the editor of the military websites and We Are the Mighty.