Veterans Day

Veterans Day was last week, and every time it comes up it reminds me of something I’ve been thinking our country could be much better at.

When I was a young naval officer stationed in San Diego for training, I visited the local Unitarian-Universalist church one Sunday and went to lunch with another group of young adults. A woman sitting across the table from me asked what I do, and I explained that I was an ensign in the U.S. Navy.

She looked at me blankly and asked, “is that like a sergeant?”

I took a deep breath, and while I don’t remember what I told her, I hope it was something along the lines that no, it’s nothing like a sergeant. An ensign is the lowest rank of commissioned officer in the Navy (and Coast Guard), which has no sergeants, and that sergeants are senior noncommissioned officers in the Army, Air Force, and Marines.

I didn’t hold her ignorance against her (even in a Navy town like San Diego). Who teaches this sort of thing? The average civilian isn’t. When I was growing up, in good public school systems in Georgia and Texas, in social studies I learned geography, history, a good bit about the judicial system, and how the government works. I think I was taught some very general things about our armed forces and how they’ve been used in the past, but that’s about it. I knew very little about our military before I entered Officer Candidate School. Americans should know more than they do.

The United States has the world’s largest defense budget. It’s bigger than the defense budgets of the next ten or so countries combined, Russia and China included. That’s about a third of the federal government’s total spending for each year.

The five armed forces (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard) employ several million people, including officers, enlisted, and civilian workers. Many of its bases are the lifeblood of towns across the country (and even in other countries; the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Japan and the Army base in Wiesbaden, Germany make big contributions to their local economies).

The previous decade was more or less defined by our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military also looms large in the politics of the Cold War; nuclear weapons, after all, are military assets. Do most people know how atomic bombs would have been used? Or how they can serve a purpose, even if they’re not used? The same goes for more conventional assets as well.

Given all that, it seems perfectly reasonable that the average U.S. citizen should be taught a few basic things about the military while they’re in school. It would make them better-informed about why we devote so many lives and treasure to it, what’s really at stake when our President initiates saber-rattling or conflicts, and what life is really like for people who serve. Most people don’t know what they’re really expressing gratitude for when they say “thank you for your service.”

  • The difference between the Navy and the Coast Guard.
  • The relationship of the Marine Corps to the Navy.
  • The purpose of the National Guard and Reserves, and their relationship to the regular forces.
  • The mission of the U.S. military (It’s absolutely not, as I’ve seen it claimed, to “kill people”).
  • The difference between commissioned officers and enlisted personnel, and the names of ranks in each.
  • How assets are used (Why does the Navy have airplanes? Why does the Army have ships?).
  • Very generally, what the different services’ uniforms look like. I wouldn’t expect civilians to know a major’s gold oak leaf from a (Navy) captain’s eagle, but it doesn’t seem too much to ask that they know Army uniforms tend to be green, Air Force uniforms are dark blue, and Navy uniforms are black or white. Or that the Navy’s black uniforms are called “blue,” even though they’re indisputably black (I never understood that myself).
  • How the military budget is spent, and how the “military-industrial complex” works.

In the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the counterculture, a suggestion like this would be met with deep suspicion that the powers that be were trying to install a militocracy. I think we’re past that now. This is just good governance.


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