We all support the troops, or so claim the forest of bumper stickers, yard signs, and even placards at demonstrations in defense of or against the war in Iraq. But in conducting interviews with veterans for a book on war leadership, I've noted a degree of wariness and cynicism about the chorus of praise for our soldiers, marines, flyers, and sailors.
One Vietnam vet said, "You watch: Another year, and people will be spitting on marines at the airport." A World War II vet noted, "Putting up a yellow ribbon [yard] sign is easy; but what are we really doing to support the troops?"
As a student of the way society views the military, I'm uncertain, too. Politicians, generals, and bureaucrats debate over compensation packages and death benefits for servicemen and women, and we should encourage our leaders to be as generous as possible. But something more is needed: personal gratitude expressed in small, everyday acts of support.
Call it "treat the troops." And it should not become a big institutionalized social movement, just something all of us do once in while.
I started my campaign two months ago when I was in a local toy store. A young man in an Army uniform was shopping for some toy cars, presumably for his kids. As he stepped up to the counter, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Let me take care of that."
He blinked. I asked the clerk to put his purchases on my bill. I shook the young man's hand and told him, "Thanks for serving your country."
We exchanged a few pleasantries and he left, Hot Wheels in hand. That was it. No big deal - or big cost. Just a token of thanks.
Later, at a restaurant near my campus, I saw a young man in NROTC uniform eating lunch with a young lady. I pointed them out to my waiter and said, "Put their ticket on my bill." Leaving, the young man stopped to thank me. I shrugged. "No problem. Thank you for volunteering to serve your country."
So far my "treat the troops" campaign has cost me about $40. I have no elaborate plans, nor any set budget; I want to be spur-of-the-moment. Frankly, it's more fun that way.
Certainly America treats its servicemen and women and veterans better probably than any armed forces in history. Military medical care, in the field and at home, is superb. But support must come from the bottom, not just from Washington or from established organizations. There's evidence from the past that, in raising the morale of armies, little things do count a lot. Great war commanders such as Napoleon were famous for using their prodigious memories to single out individual men with personal conversation and compliments. Military leadership, in human resources terms, is the art of making every member of the unit feel you care about him or her personally.
In a democracy, however, the morale of men and women in uniform is the people's responsibility, too - whatever one's feelings about this particular war. So, go ahead, treat the troops. Do it in shops, movie theaters, restaurants, and dry cleaners. Do it modestly, without ostentation; don't demand or expect effusive thanks. Imagine the effect if millions of Americans expressed their gratitude with a little cash and kindness. That would show we support the troops better than any yard sign or bumper sticker.
• David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. He is the author of 'Visions of War.'