And remember: you must never, under any circumstances, despair. To hope and to act, these are our duties in misfortune.
—Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
This editorial is being written on Veterans Day. Likely you will read it when the stores and streets are lined with holiday decorations. Thanksgiving will have come and gone. All these celebrations have the common themes of giving and gratitude, and among the many requests clamoring for your attention at this season are care package collections for active-duty service members and donations for disadvantaged veterans. These efforts are well intentioned on the part of givers and appreciated on the part of those who receive them. Yet these themes remind me of the hackneyed saying we likely have all heard, and many of us have said: Thank you for your service.
Many of you may recall the controversy that emerged surrounding this seemingly innocuous cliché. It has had an Internet resurgence on this day set out to honor those who wore or are in uniform.1 For those who don’t remember the phenomenon, I will briefly summarize. A journalist was interviewing a combat veteran from Afghanistan on a different subject but knowing he had been in the military and the reporter thinking he was being kind and respectful, like so many of us, thanked him for his service. The astute journalist could tell from the expression on the veteran’s face that the comment had touched a wound he never expected to open. But he cared enough to try and understand how the veteran heard these words from out of the depths of his memories of war.
The emotions that emerged from the interview and the online blogs and comments that followed reflect the toll that war takes: anger, anguish, alienation, which these “have a nice day” words seem to evoke, even though they are never meant to create distance, dismissal, or dishonor. This interaction was a painful one for the veteran, and even for the journalist, and created what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, “a condition of conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistency between belief and action.”2
The reason those 5 words strike a raw nerve in some—but by no means all—who were or are in the armed forces is that those to whom they are spoken know in a deep and personal way, that we who say them usually do not know what we are talking about. I can see this reaction when I watch several of my VA colleagues who actually are combat veterans say the words but from a different theory of mind, a theory of mind they share. Theory of mind is another psychological concept that is at the core of interpersonal and communication skills, the ability to see and feel the world as another person sees it. When someone who has never fought or even served says “thank you for your service,” some veterans feel that their individual experience of combat or even of being in the military is being expressed inauthentically, even perhaps insincerely.
“To these vets, thanking soldiers for their service symbolizes the ease of sending a volunteer army to wage war at great distance—physically, spiritually, economically,” journalist Matt Richtel writes. “It raises questions of the meaning of patriotism, shared purpose and, pointedly, what you’re supposed to say to those who put their lives on the line and are uncomfortable about being thanked for it.”2
My father, a World War II combat veteran and career army physician, told me when I was young that there were 3 experiences that could never be understood unless you lived them: pregnancy, medical school, and combat. I’m not sure why or how he chose these although I am sure they were not original, but having gone through the second, I believe it was because these events are of such personal intensity, such immediate contact with the human condition in all its suffering and resilience that they cannot be faithfully replicated in any in vitro simulation but only in vivo.
Which brings me to the title of the column. How can we say thank you to our friends and family members, our coworkers, and our patients who went to war and returned, who enlisted ready to go into combat even if the fates did not send them? Reading the comments of these men and women in response to the superficial phrase with which we habitually acknowledge their sacrifice leaves me wondering what to say to express our obligation to those who struggled through foreign tribulations while we remained safe at home. Their reflections offer some surprising suggestions that seem prophetic as we as a country process the results of the recent election with grief, triumph, or indifference.