Soldiers in the Airport, 2006: A Postcard
Is applauding for soldiers support for the wars they fight?
My wife can’t believe that I won’t applaud for soldiers at the airport.
It’s June 2006, and we’re waiting outside the escalator at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta for her niece and nephew, who have just arrived at the airport from Caracas, Venezuela. Before the new international terminal opened in 2012, this was the spot in the main terminal where people would wait for friends, colleagues, and family who were returning from international travel, a kind of unofficial gateway from the great beyond. Travelers would ascend the long three-story-high escalator after having passed through customs—husbands, wives, sisters, sons, daughters, uncles, cousins, friends, lovers, associates, and strangers from every imaginable ethnic group in this beautifully diverse modern city. I had often waited here for my wife’s relatives and friends who visited from Venezuela. In fact, I was often the designated greeter, sent by my wife to drive to the airport and stand in this very spot, alone, waiting, a friendly face in the airport.
Around 2006, this spot also became a platform for supporting American troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They would rise up the escalator along with everyone else, usually dressed in desert fatigues and carrying a big rucksack or duffle bag. The crowd gathered there to greet family and friends would spot the soldiers and break out into spontaneous applause. Sometimes people would cheer and say, “thank you for your service,” or “we love you” as the soldiers passed by. At one point that year, an official greeter was stationed there, an airport employee who served as a kind of official cheerleader for the soldiers. She would would pass out tiny American flags for people to wave and then lead the applause as each soldier ascended the escalator.
The first soldier comes up the stairwell. People applaud. My wife applauds. I just stand there with my arms crossed. I am not applauding.
My wife elbows me. I shake my head. She elbows me again.
I am not angry or self conscious, at least I wasn't until the moment my wife began poking me.
I have nothing against soldiers. My father and two of his cousins were in the Navy. My grandfather fought in World War II. My cousin Ron was standing on the bridge of the destroyer Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin when the torpedoes were spotted headed towards the ship. My ancestors fought in the Civil War and Revolutionary War. I am not a pacifist. I am not antimilitary. I am, however, opposed to stupid, pointless, catastrophically wasteful wars, and that is exactly the kind of war America is waging right now.
I am angry. I was angry before the invasion, and I was angry in the early days when the army swept into Iraq with practically no opposition, and I am still today, now that the entire premise of the war has been proven to be a lie and soldiers and civilians are dying in droves. My anger is boiling over now that the only justification for the war is the U.S. trying to save face. How many more GIs will die as we try to make this war appear honorable? How many Iraqi civilians?
I lean over and try to whisper all of this into my wife’s ear, but it is too complicated to express in a whisper so it comes out garbled and unconvincing.
“You could still clap for them,” she whispers back.
I am trying to figure out why it is important to her that I clap. Is it simply that she is embarrassed by my intransigence, this highly visible faux pas, or does she believe in the party-line opinion that we can separate support for soldiers from support for the war? Is she like so many others who see the uniform and instinctively want to honor it? No, that can't be. I've been to Venezuela with her, stopped at a checkpoint outside of Caracas while a kid who looked to be about sixteen years old examined our papers---a kid with a giant machine gun slung over one shoulder wearing the ill-fitting uniform of the Venezuelan Army. She despises the Chavez regime and everything associated with it, so no, it is most definitely not respect for the uniform.
I want to make her understand my position, but that won’t happen here, on this newly hallowed ground. Here, ideology has narrowed the options for what is a socially acceptable act. The thing to do—the right thing in the moment—is to clap when a soldier walks off the escalator.
What I want to say to her but cannot find the words in that moment, is, 'I will do nothing to support this war.'
I am fundamentally, diametrically, bitterly opposed to this war. I attended demonstrations against the war before it started and after it had already begun and now that we know that there are no weapons of mass destruction, I feel vindicated, righteous even. But none of my self righteousness prevents the endless stream of soldiers in desert fatigues from stepping off that escalator. They just keep coming and going through this airport.
I know that some of the people clapping around me feel like I do, but they have compartmentalized their reservations about the war. They have put their critical thoughts in a box, right next to another box that holds all of their patriotic feelings. They decide from one situation to the next which box they will open. I am not good at compartmentalizing. I hate this war, and I refuse to hide that fact behind social niceties.
I am afraid that if I clap, I will be supporting the war. I realize, of course, that everyone around me believes they are clapping for the soldiers, and not the war----that clapping in airports is the new American gesture of gratitude in a time of war----but wouldn’t it be easy, with all of that clapping going on, to mistake support for one as support for the other?
Can you separate soldiers from the wars they fight in? I don't think so. The moment they put on that uniform, they participate in profound symbolic rites, standing in for all that is good and bad about their country and their military at that moment in history. When a war is unjust, the soldiers are symbols of that injustice whether they choose to be or not. We shouldn't hate them or blame them---they were not the architects of the injustice. Instead, we should pity them. We should reach out privately with our love and support. We should be howling about the wrongness and injustice of this war to whomever will listen. These seem like appropriate responses. But at this moment, public displays of patriotism do not feel appropriate to me.
We all remember the Vietnam War, when returning soldiers were taunted and ridiculed by anti-war demonstrators. We all want to learn the right lesson from that awful spectacle, to be better citizens and supporters of our veterans this time around. Nonjudgmental. Welcoming. Supportive. Appreciative of the sacrifices that soldiers and their families make. Those protests against veterans were ugly and wrong, but at least they were honest. On the other hand, this welcome party at the airport seems dishonest to me. The Iraq War is going terribly right now, not simply because American soldiers are dying, but because the entire country is wondering why we are there at all. The justifications for starting this war have evaporated, and we are now left to contemplate the awful possibility that we invaded another country, toppled its government, killed thousands of its citizens, and destroyed its infrastructure without any moral or even practical justification. Right now the Bush administration is scrambling to put the best possible face on the war, but it is a catastrophe, and standing in an airport waving little flags and shouting "thank you for your service" is not a sufficient response. It would be more honest to shout out “thank you for going over there so I don’t have to, so my children don’t have to."
Is it possible that these crowds have gathered because Americans are feeling sick about this war? Is it possible that some of the people applauding around me are reaching for some kind of absolution, some particle of goodness to come from this terrible conflict, a positive feeling, even if it lasts for just a moment?
This, I can understand, because it is honest.