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Boats 09-01-2018 09:48 AM

We all must serve America, military members or ‘ordinary’ citizens
We all must serve America, military members or ‘ordinary’ citizens

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There is a personal intimacy about military service to our country. It is about who we are, as Americans, and what we stand for together. We are reminded of this as we lay to rest Sen. John McCain, a naval aviator who became the U.S. Navy’s liaison to the Senate before retiring from military service as a captain. “I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” McCain said. “I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for.”

Americans who serve in uniform share that love of country. And the personal intimacy of service is intertwined with relationships that develop in the military, shaped by the unique “society” in which they are forged. American military “societies” function successfully, in large part, because everyone believes in fair and equal treatment. They accept hierarchy because responsibility, authority and accountability must, at all times, be clear. Higher rank does not mean someone is better or more worthy; it means they have different responsibilities.

Leaders serve the people with whom they are entrusted and believe “their people” deserve all that the leader can give. Competence is the foundation of performance and outcomes. Military tasks frequently bring the presence or absence of competence into plain view. Truth and trust matter, and everyone knows that catastrophes can result if these are not respected and maintained. An intimacy of service is nurtured by a belief that everyone is in it together, and no one gets left behind.
When people I meet today learn of my time in the Navy, they often say, “Thank you for your service.” It is a recent custom and courtesy of sorts, arising in part, I think, because military service in our country today is voluntary. A current high level of public trust in the military encourages it. Yet it also is a sincere expression of gratitude for the burdens of our recent 17 years of war, born heavily by young women and men in uniform.

Still, though it’s well-intentioned, it’s a comment that makes me uncomfortable. It is not meant to be an offense, of course, but it feels like a lack of understanding of what my service intimately means to me. Perhaps I am also troubled because hearing “thank you for your service” feels like an acknowledgment that we Americans have divided ourselves in yet another way. It seems to say that military people are special in our society, the ones who volunteer to serve, demonstrate patriotism, sacrifice and discipline on behalf of everyone else.

To be sure, those who serve in the military stand out, are honored and respected for what they do. But their fellow Americans appear, in an important way, to have severed a real relationship with those they thank for their service. This feeling that Americans have withdrawn from their bond with their military comes from behaviors that tell us we are not all engaged in the same effort, mission or grand enterprise. The service that “ordinary” citizenship requires — with its disciplines, sacrifices and patriotism — appears no longer to be taken seriously.

We do not seem to value acts such as voting, showing tolerance for different opinions, or engaging in spirited and respectful debate on important issues of governance. Political discourse that should be sober, and of interest to us all, is drowned in a sea of entertainment and rendered unimportant. We don’t act as if we remember that fulfilling the responsibilities of “ordinary” citizenship is essential to sustaining that which makes America special.

When Americans don’t vote, they show disrespect to their brothers and sisters in uniform; they disengage from them. What the military does is only a small part of what it takes to preserve and protect our republic. The lion’s share of the effort is in the hands of “ordinary” Americans. Our military members serve, and sometimes sacrifice greatly, to provide an umbrella of protection when it is needed, so that “ordinary” Americans can carry on with their work.

There is other evidence of this disconnect and disengagement. Today’s voices for “America First” masquerade nationalism as patriotism. Nationalism is simply the promotion of a nation’s interests. Patriotism is a love and devotion to country, and alliance with those who share the same values. Americans should all know the difference — and recognize the crumbling of that alliance. Using the families of service members who have died in service to our country as props in political speeches or partisan events is disrespectful. It is illustrative of our division.

The role of commander in chief in our country is a special one. People in uniform salute the president as their ultimate boss. They work for the American people, but follow the president’s orders. They share some of the intimacy of their service with him, and expect good, honest leadership in return. When the president lets them down by having an affair with an intern and lying about it they are disappointed. When the president tells a soldier’s widow, “He knew what he was signing up for,” they are saddened by their boss’s insensitivity and profound disrespect. The lack of importance Americans assign to the quality of presidential leadership as commander in chief is a symptom of a weak relationship between our military and the citizens served.

With Sen. McCain’s example, we have an opportunity to honor service, to reflect on what he did with his life — and why. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines need our partnership. They need us all to do our jobs, as citizens, to preserve the cause they have sworn to protect. Please remember this when you thank someone for their service. Then honor them — really honor them — by doing something about it.

About the writer: John J. Grossenbacher retired in 2003 as U.S. Navy Vice Admiral and Commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Forces, following a 33-year naval career. He also directed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for 10 years, overseeing scientific and engineering research in nuclear and other energy resources, the environment, and homeland security.

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