Why “Thank You for Your Service” May be Performative Allyship at its Worst

Or “Should Civilians Thank Veterans?”

All the flags in the world can’t redeem TYFYS. The sentiment needs to be fundamentally re-thought.

Despite the increasing number of articles and blogs decrying the practice, civilians continue to insist on thanking servicemembers and veterans for their service. That’s a problem because “Thank You for Your Service” (TYFYS) may be performative allyship at its worst.

An ally is any person who claims to support the redistribution of unjust political and social power. Performative allyship is any act (verbal, material, etc.) by people with power that appears to support members of marginalized populations without actually advancing the dignity or interests thereof. These acts are performative because their value can be measured more by image and appearance than by impact and results.

Military = Minority

Many readers may already be practiced in exposing the powers of racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism, to name just a few. Calling out the unjust distribution of power along the spectrum of military & civilian isn’t yet mainstream, but it needs to move that way. Legal standards exist, sometimes called “suspect classifications,” that protect populations that are insular or discrete and which lack political power.

From New York Times

The insularity and discreteness of military communities has been increasing steadily since WWII, a process that was amplified once conscription ended in 1974. Since then, the “Civil-Military divide” has continued to grow, making veterans an unprotected minority of a minority in our nation;

  • Over 50% of the adult population are women
  • Nearly 15% of Americans are over the age of 65 (protections begin at 40)
  • 12.7% of Americans are of African descent
  • 12.6% of Americans have a physical or mental disability
  • 11% of Americans will experience same sex attraction
  • About 7% of Americans are or have been in the military

Low numbers aren’t enough to rise to the level of suspect classification status though, a population also must be subject to stereotypes and lack political power. In liberal democracies like ours, that means civil rights and other means of formal protection in our legal system. There are a small handful of laws that protect servicemembers, like SRCA and USERRA for equal employment opportunity, and UOCAVA for voting rights. But the only law protecting veterans, VEVRAA, excludes veterans who did not serve in wartime or incur service-connected disabilities. Even when it is relied upon by veterans, like myself or Donald Greer, enforcement agencies have shirked their duties to conduct impartial, full, and fair investigations.

So what does TYFYS actually accomplish in a society where dehumanization is so complete that a veteran will take their own life every 72 minutes?

Some progressives have said that performative allyship is about trying to distance oneself from social evils while reaping its benefits. It is the act of doing something for credit, the “minimum bit to gain approval and escape the tag of a silent neutral or a bigot.” It’s like putting a Black Lives Matter sign on your front lawn or clapping at a local Gay Pride parade; the display is the only real action. The problem is that these actions are more for the performer, and the credit they seek as allies, than they are for the population at risk.

Imagine a veteran responds to a TYFYS by sucking their teeth or rolling their eyes at the performer, who objects, saying something like “I was just trying to be nice!” The essential element, in that case, is the performer’s desire to be nice, how they feel about themselves, not about the actual service of the human being before them. TYFYS is more often about the self-interest of civilians than it is about the human dignity of the veteran, it’s about civilians’ desires, feelings, expectations, and appearance.

Once a vet, always a vet(?)

Civilians, like any allies, can ultimately turn off their allyship. It’s as easy as ignoring the problem by withdrawing to a world made by and for people with power that can write out those on the margins. People experiencing oppression can only tune out and turn off if they are able to “pass” as a either non member or a member who is more “respectable” than their peers. Performance is all about appearance, so the lowest of the low in marginalized communities often get ostracized, a phenomenon known as Respectability Politics. In the military, that translates to lower enlisted personnel, especially those with Bad Paper. If someone can’t bring themselves to thank a veteran who got the boot for turning to drugs, then it isn’t really about service at all. It’s service with conditions, the difference between service that someone has decided counts, and service that doesn’t.

The problem is, once a servicemember becomes a vet they’ll always be a vet. A DD214 or other discharge paperwork makes veteran status an immutable characteristic. Being an ally is about solidarity, about risking the same effects as the at-risk population by being vulnerable. Allies voluntarily accept the danger that they might lose status, wealth, or other benefits from standing with marginalized populations. Some allies take these risks as a performance for other, perceived marginal populations, like retired hippies who turn up to every march and never take off their arrest bracelets. But the risk is real, even if these allies receive some benefit, like approval before marginalized peers.

Allies often need validation, and that is okay — everyone needs to be acknowledged as a valuable human being. Real allies, however, don’t seek validation, even if it does occur. Performative allies expect acknowledgment for what they believe they do, and may object or harbor silent resentment when marginalized groups or people do not thank them for their service to the cause.

That is what makes TYFYS so wrong — it fundamentally assumes the desire or expectation of servicemembers and veterans to be validated, as though thanking them finally fulfills the lives they risked for a detached populace. TYFYS operates in such a way to essentially undermine the validity of a person’s service, to insinuate that they need or want validation for putting their lives on the line; the civilian is doing the veteran a favor by providing the validation. TYFYS creates a dynamic in which the civilian not only takes center stage and assumes the role of benefactor, it simultaneously deprives the servicemember or veteran of any honor or integrity that inspired their service in the first place.

And that may be performative allyship at its worst. Not only does it not contribute in any measurable way to the dignity of veterans or do anything to advance their civil rights, TYFYS can actually roll it back by effectively undermining the legitimacy of veterans’ own personal decision making. Making a show of expressing gratitude to veterans, real or not, creates the illusion of unilateral dependency of the civilian upon the veteran. TYFYS masks the fact that veterans also need civilians, not just the other way around; veterans need civilians to stop the lip service and get down to business by fighting with them for their rights as veterans.

Civilian Allies can do better. Here’s how

So what should you do if the gratitude is real, if you want to stop performing as though your an ally and display some real solidarity? Civilians need to recognize their privilege in a society in which those who fight our wars are treated with disregard. To adjust course, civilian allies need to decenter themselves at times, as other people with privilege do for other marginalized populations. To paraphrase Liz Brazile, “Oppression starts when [civilians] decide they know what’s best for [servicemembers and veterans].”

Here are a few tips for ways to do better than TYFYS;

  • Subvert TYFYS by thanking servicemembers and veterans for something more concrete and specific — their sacrifice, their courage, their resiliency, their presence. Or just say “welcome home” instead.
  • Support VSOs, VOSBs, and SCVOSBs (Veteran Service Organizations, Veterans Owned Small Businesses, and Service Connected Veteran Owned Small Businesses). I recommend Centurions Guild for a VSO and Pew Pew HQ for a SCVOSB… :-)
  • Have veterans speak as veterans at political rallies. They already fought for others, now encourage them to fight for themselves. They can talk about the next point, below. \/\/
  • Demand civil rights for veterans, at the national and state level, and insist enforcement be improved for those rights already in law.

Finally, to borrow a tactic from Tanya D., before you rip into the comments with stuff like “I love the troops, how dare you question my sincerity” or, for that matter, “I love being thanked, shut the fuck up and drive on if you ain’t got anything nice to say”, take a second and think about whether you’re performing precisely as I’ve described.

If you’re a civilian, why are your feelings more important to you than the veteran writing this piece? If you’re a veteran, what do you stand to lose from civilians, or from saying goodbye to six syllables worth less than the air on which they travel? Besides, if comments aren’t constructive, I’ll just delete them. It’s one of the few powers I have (besides invisibility).

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