In one video, Army Master Sgt. Joseph Myers walks unannounced into his 10-year-old daughter Hanna's classroom in Texas after a long deployment. In split seconds Hanna's expression goes from blank to shock to joy to meltdown. She barely manages to make it toward her father's embrace. In another, at a Jacksonville Jaguars football game last month, Maj. Kevin Becar of the Florida Army National Guard runs out and reunites with his stunned fifth-grade son in the end zone, what the master of ceremonies calls a "complete surprise" during military appreciation day activities.
The scenes, repeated in video clips over the Web, are unquestionably heartbreaking. The weight of the moment is too much for these young hearts denied their fathers for what feels like eternities. They can't help but break down, sob, melt. Neither can we.
And that's just what's wrong with the pictures. These aren't private moments between soldier and child. Cameras are rolling, JumboTrons are flashing, cell phones are capturing YouTube versions ready for viral loops across the Internet. It's a whole production, contrived by TV news channels, sports franchises, the Pentagon -- by everyone involved but the children or, sometimes, the spouse on the receiving end of what's become Candid Camera in camouflage.
There's nothing wrong with honoring returning soldiers. That's not what's happening here. In this new genre of fabricated reunions, soldiers' service and children's emotions are being exploited at their most raw for mass audiences that, for the most part, have no idea what the soldier or his family are going through. Or are about to go through, considering the shattered mental state every third soldier returns in. The riveting encounter of hero returning to family defines the war to the public to the near-exclusion of less appealing realities.
In the Vietnam War, returning soldiers were, at times, explicitly disrespected. They were the scapegoats of the nation's anger against the war and its lying prosecutors, the military among them. Soldiers are still disrespected. This time, it's more subtle. They're patronized and manipulated in ceremonies that briefly manufacture feel-good solidarity while shielding the real price of war with cheap bombast and cheaper patriotism.
It costs nothing to say "bless the troops." TV stations and sports franchises make money off their "appreciation day" events. Unlike during Vietnam or any other wars in the country's history until then, Americans are not required to contribute men and women to an all-volunteer force, which has effectively become a praetorian institution segregated from mainstream society. Nor are Americans required to pay for the wars. During the last century's world wars and the Korean War, top tax rates were between 77 percent and 94 percent. Top rates were 70 percent or above during Vietnam. Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when rates topped off at 35 percent, there's been four major tax cuts.
Not surprisingly, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq occupy a place somewhere between indifference and ignorance for most, their stake in those wars being nil beyond video-clip tear-jerkers. Which is why there's no real opposition to a president escalating troop levels in Afghanistan, after eight years of futility, from about 15,000 for most of the decade to 100,000 by next year. Or why there's little debate over wars that have cost more than $1 trillion, so far, with no end or pay-off in sight.
Or why voyeuristic videos of soldiers coming home to their families are the standard fantasy of a nation lying to itself about honoring troops while blindly feeding the mill that returns them in whatever shape, upright, mangled or bagged.