How Americans Treat Their Soldiers

A few months ago, I was on a flight between two American cities. I was at the front of the economy class cabin, and watched as one of the first class customers waved down a flight attendant. He said, “there’s a soldier back there–would it be all right if I switched seats with him?”

On that same trip, I stood behind a couple of men on an escalator. They were strangers to each other, and were just chitchatting about flight connections. One was dressed in a military uniform. When they parted ways at the bottom of the escalator, the other man said “thank you for your service”.

Today I listened to a recent episode of This American Life. In it, a man tells the story of how a flight attendant requested that passengers remain seated so that a soldier returning from Iraq could disembark first. He was going to see his eight-and-a-half month-old baby for the first time.

I’ve witnessed other similar acts of generosity and kindness toward American military personnel. It’s a coincidence, I think, that these three stories happened at airports. I’ve never seen such gestures in Canada, though that may be because we have few military bases in and around Vancouver, and we just have fewer military personnel per capita.

I’m not sure how to feel about this. Should we accord extra respect toward soldiers? And does it matter if they’re being deployed to war zones?

On the one hand, they’re usually underprivileged, under-educated citizens being paid poorly to put their lives at risk ostensibly in defense of their nation.

On the other hand, maybe they’re no or less heroic than firefights, police officers or nurses? Plus, they may be engaged in a war with which you disagree.

Maybe this is just another way of asking “can you support the troops but not the war”, which is a question we talked about back in 2006.


  1. While true pacifists might disagree, there is something different about being a solider than being another sort of public servant, even one (like police, firefighters, Coast Guard, search-and-rescue, etc.) who also risks life and limb.

    Being in the armed forces is, by definition, a role of being prepared both to kill and to die on the orders of others, even in a fight you might personally oppose, for the larger cause of your country or even something larger than that — and frequently to be away from your home and family for months or even years in doing so.

    There is nobility in that when performed professionally, even though sometimes it is also unavoidably barbarous and desperate, and damaging psychologically as well as physically. We do not glorify soldiering (and war) as much as in the past, which is good, but I still think it is generally still right to honour those who do the job.

  2. I’m more of the pacificst streak that Derek mentions, but find these gestures ceremonial and empty. The real world of soldiers in the States is that they are often in the military as the only option for getting education of just out of poverty, they are not well paid and often have terrible support for the deep physical and psychological damage that combat causes.

    The military is deeply embedded in the American economy and psyche to the point where it seems the country cannot stop being at war. Frankly, I’d rather see these gestures reserved for firefighters, police and doctors, the people who focus on preserving life rather than ending it. I don’t dispute the necessity of a military, and I don’t celebrate it’s existence.

  3. It is remarkable how large a presence the U.S. military has within the country.

    Here in B.C., even though we have a large naval base at Esquimalt, it’s not especially obvious when you visit Victoria. But cross the border and you routinely run into U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine facilities all over the place, from Whidbey Island on down.

    On a short trip from Disneyland to San Diego a couple of weeks ago, we passed at least four major military facilities, from the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station to Camp Pendleton to Miramar Air Force Base to the Coronado Naval Complex. That pervasiveness surely affects attitudes as well.

  4. Todd, Not all wars are just, fair or necessary. But soldiers are called on defend as well as attack, and it’s entirely fair to say that without certain soldiers, battles and wars, we would not be living in (a) democracy nor would we be enjoying the freedoms and rights we have today.

    Perhaps the soldier I next see has not personally fought for my behalf, but they are part of a service that has sacificed life and limb so that I can live and prosper. The people I know who have joined the military have done so out of a sense of duty, honor, tradition and service, not financial desperation.

    Darren, I like the way Americans treat their soldiers, and like Derek says, comparing them to police officers or firemen is like comparing a sword to a kitchen knife — both kill; one is made to do so. Compare the number of soldiers killed per 10000 to the number of police officers killed and then say which deserves more accolades.

    And as to your last point — that they may be engaged in a war with which you don’t agree — doesn’t that make them MORE deserving of your support, and politicians — the ones who choose who to fight — less deserving? A soldier who disagrees with who to fight goes to jail…. or worse.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I’m legitimately unsure how to think about this, so if I’ve given you the impression that I’m opposed to it, I’m not (necessarily).

      As to your final point, it’s a question of philosophy. For surely there’s a point at which it’s more honourable to throw down one’s weapons than to fight an unjust war. Did the soldiers of Nazi Germany merit accolades? Maybe. Did the soldiers of the SS? What about the Khmer Rouge?

      This question is more relevant, I think, when we’re discussing a volunteer army.

  5. Thank you for the thought provoking essay Darren, your blog is one of the best. The comments are as well equally thought provoking and well written, on both sides of the argument, so refreshing in light of what is usually seen on the Internet.

    The only comment I have to add is that the German soldiers of WWII (the ordinary soldier, not the SS) fought because they had no choice, to refuse to fight would be to sign their own death warrant at the hands of their officers. Fighting on was the only way they could try to survive the war (and many didn’t).

  6. That some soldiers are forced to fight, or fight for the wrong reasons, is true; are they not more like prisoners or hostages in certain sad and uncommon cases? Some police officers join for ignoble reasons, too.

    But I don’t think that is the case for the bulk of the Canadian Forces over the history of the existence of Canada.

    And, as usual, Nazis are the exception and the inevitable ender of any Internet debate.

  7. “And I’m proud to be an American,
    where at least I know I’m free.
    And I won’t forget the men who died,
    who gave that right to me.”
    – Lee Greenwood

  8. I’m a pacifist. But I do think we should afford soldiers respect and acknowledgement for the hard, horrible work they do. What other public servant would have to go without seeing their own baby for 8.5 months, while mostly likely putting themself at risk of death, dismemberment, PTSD and other horrors and having to do the unthinkable to others? Respecting the awful things that soldiers do is part of recognizing just how awful war is. I say this as the granddaughter of veterans and the niece and cousin of other soldiers. I think war and solidering are horrible things, but, so long as those things exist, we should note the tremendous sacrifice of life – whether the end of life or quality of life. And we can do that without glorifying it. It’s all just horrible.

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