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Originally published Wednesday, November 10, 2010 at 4:44 PM

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Guest columnist

The true value, and appreciation, of military service

Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population bears the burden of the nation's defense. Guest columnist Edward F. Palm, a Vietnam War veteran, offers his perspective on the sacrifice on how it is sometimes too cavalierly appreciated.

Special to The Times

IN honor of this Veterans Day, a little bad Churchill just may be in order: Never have so many asked so much of so few.

That is what I thought of recently when I learned that the burden of national defense is now being shouldered by less than 1 percent of our population. These few certainly deserve our gratitude. Lately, however, I have begun to wonder if what the people so eager to thank the troops for their service are really saying is, "Thank you for serving so that neither I nor anyone close to me has to do it."

Granted, most people mean well in thanking those who have volunteered to serve. But the country at large is becoming too cavalier in its attitude toward the military profession. Sarah Palin is a case in point. Witness her boast last summer at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally: "I raised a combat vet, and they can't take that away from me."

The new neocon role model for women would seem to be the Spartan mother, who in proudly sending her son off to battle would admonish him to come back with his shield or on it, with his wounds "all before."

Clearly, a line has been crossed in America. Despite what right-wing revisionists would have us believe, even during the darkest days of our Vietnam War, the great majority of Americans still respected the military. But they didn't revere and idolize it. And there are at least two reasons why the current adulation is troubling.

First, one of the best ways to oppress someone, ironically, is to place him or her up on a pedestal. Hollow praise and glib expressions of gratitude only serve to keep the troops in their place, in harm's way. The average American doesn't seem to mind that we don't have enough volunteers and that our soldiers and Marines are enduring multiple combat tours. The result was predictable: widespread problems with post-traumatic stress disorder and an alarming increase in suicides. Yet people like Palin don't seem to feel this. They obviously view our troops as Spartans all, born and bred just to fight.

Second, while our military does indeed answer to civil authority, the boundaries become blurred at the top. Officers generally get to four-star rank by having like-minded political allies. It is naive to think that a president gets unalloyed, completely objective professional advice from the general he places in charge of a war. Such a general is part of the administration team. He is expected to speak only on message, to shape his comments and assessments to fit the administration's views. Just ask Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal if you don't believe that.

There is also the problem of military careerism. It is difficult to be a credible warrior without a war. To its credit, today's military seems to have curbed the abuses we saw during Vietnam. High-ranking officers are not pinning undeserved medals on one another, nor are they trying to save face with inflated body counts and chest-thumping predictions of imminent victory.

But the military profession demands a "can-do" spirit, even when something cannot or should not be done. Theirs, after all, is "not to reason why," but rather to "do and die."

The military is indeed an honorable profession, but it is a serious business and one that should never be sentimentalized. A soldier's mother sends her son out to kill another mother's son. Sarah Palin, and all the mothers like her, would do well to remember that sad necessity.

As for our poor beleaguered troops themselves, I can imagine what many of them must be thinking when strangers thank them for their service: "Actions speak louder than words."

Edward F. Palm of Bremerton is a Vietnam veteran and a retired Marine officer turned academic. He now teaches online for Strayer University.

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