Opinion

Support our troops? Not with an empty gesture.

The Gratitude Campaign encourages Americans to honor US soldiers with a hand gesture of thanks. With all due respect, I won't be taking part. Here's why.

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My friend Mick recently forwarded to me an email with a link to “The Gratitude Campaign,” the national crusade by Scott Truitt of Seattle to encourage support for our troops.

This campaign urges each American, upon encountering someone in the military, to publicly but silently thank them, using a modified gesture from American Sign Language. It involves first placing your hand on your heart, and then moving it down toward your belly button and outward toward the soldier. With all due respect, Mr. Truitt, I will decline.

This “salute from the heart,” though well meaning, is yet one more in a series of obsequious flourishes in the past couple of years that may be doing more harm than good.

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When a coal miner is killed on the job, his family and friends honor his passing and the value of his life, but they lament the nasty, dangerous industry in which he had to work to make a living.

In a similar fashion, Americans expressing gratitude and respect for those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, ought to still lament the nasty and dangerous wars in which the soldiers lost their lives.

Sending the wrong message

As an educator, I am concerned that campaigns like Truitt’s, and the veritable “religion” that bumper stickers and mainstream media have made of “supporting the troops,” are sending the wrong message to our youth.

Earnest tributes to servicemen and women, wherever one or more are gathered, tend to occlude the moral questions of warfare, while lionizing soldiers, sailors, and marines in children’s eyes.

Examples include yellow ribbons on trees and on bumper stickers, wearing warrior red clothing on Fridays, and planned “spontaneous” applause in airport concourses.

Such initiatives are beneficial, certainly, for military recruitment. And, admittedly, recruitment is necessary for our system of defense and democracy to function in this country.

But historically, mass appeals for the kinds of martial veneration we’ve been seeing have fostered and inculcated cultures of war.

Most American adults can distinguish the concept of support for the military from blind endorsement of a foreign war.

Children, however, may not.

Kids used as props

This was disturbingly evident in events staged in towns across the country last Memorial Day. You probably saw a video clip on your local or national news, featuring children of varying ages scrambling to plant flags or wreaths on soldiers’ graves – soldiers they never knew.

Eight and ten year olds interviewed were breathless and excited, as from a game. On camera, they explained what they were doing with dutifully recited platitudes about dying for one’s country.

In their minds, the vague nature of war, death, and patriotism were bound up in an amorphous but festive competitive pep rally.

But war is nobody’s glory game.

It’s closer in grotesqueness to mining coal. It’s a painful, and questionably necessary evil, that destroys landscapes, cities, and whole societies. And it erases, in the blink of an eye, countless lives of brave and innocent young men and women, while it guts their families. It alters world history, but seldom in a constructive way.

Despite war’s torturous rigors and fatal risks, our children dream of becoming soldiers and pilots because we invent war heroes for them to emulate: G.I. Joe, or the flashy fighter pilot Maverick, played by actor Tom Cruise in the film “Top Gun.”

Contrary to the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, when returning military men were vilified and spat upon, we now goad our children to celebrate uniformed heroes in Fourth of July parades and stirring ceremonies at sites of war memorials.

We seem to be overcompensating for the shameful way we shunned them in 1973. And we may be going too far, crossing the line that separates honoring our dead from glorifying the war.

Love our soldiers, hate the war

How, then, do we teach our children to love our soldiers, but hate the war?

It’s not easy. Youngsters cannot synchronize the apparent contradiction.

So let’s make it simple. Let’s redirect our children’s gratitude to the first responders we often take for granted: police officers and firemen.

They risk their lives every day for their fellow citizens.

But we don’t break into applause when we bump into them at airports; nobody sends them care packages, wears red shirts in their honor, or puts their hands over their hearts.

Nonetheless, we appreciate their sacrifices, and we personally thank the ones we know. We bemoan the conditions in which they must work, and the difficult jobs they must do.

Meanwhile, let’s work to support soldiers in more substantial ways than blowing them air kisses.

Two marines, close friends of my family, are already aware of my gratitude. The “support” they really want, is a good job when they return home, tuition for college, financial credit for a home or business opportunity, and superior veterans’ health care.

And when next I see them, I will not be placing my hand on my heart. Not out of any disrespect for them, but more out of concern for the next generation.

David McGrath is an English professor at Edison State College in Ft. Myers, Fla., and author of “Siege at Ojibwa” A version of this article previously appeared at Duluth News Tribune and The SouthtownStar.

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