It’s not unusual, on a walk in Provincetown, to be reminded of townspeople’s military service. There’s the Civil War Monument in the cemetery, the World War I Doughboy statue in front of town hall, and the adjacent Veterans’ Memorial. And there are many streets and town squares named after veterans. In this, Provincetown resembles thousands of towns, big and small, across the United States.
The relationship between our towns and the nation has been knitted together by the way citizens have seen service to the country as an extension of one’s commitment to community. Military service has always been part of civic life, extraordinary in some ways, but also commonplace.
When I was growing up in Fair Lawn, N.J., almost everyone I knew at school had a parent who had served, as my father had, in World War II, which lingered in our collective memories as the “good war.” And the G.I. Bill provided low-interest mortgages that meant working-class veterans, including many, like my father, from immigrant families, could buy houses in the suburbs. The G.I. Bill provided funds to pay for a college education, too. Military service moved us into the middle class.
It was no surprise that four days after graduation from high school in June 1968, I was on a train from Newark to Parris Island, S.C. for Marine Corps boot camp.
Even so, mine was not a “military family” by any stretch of the imagination. We were simply a family with a record of service, our military experience absorbed into the larger pattern of our lives as ordinary citizens.
That experience has left me wondering how it is possible that an estimated 15 percent of the rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were veterans. Why are so many veterans confusing sedition with their oath to defend the Constitution?
One reason, I think, is that military service is no longer an ordinary part of life for a substantial proportion of the population. And military service seems to have separated many veterans from civil society rather than connecting them to it.
The numbers bear this out. According to an April 2021 Pew Research Center report, in 1980 18 percent of the U.S. population had some military experience; by 2018, that number had dropped to 7 percent. While in 1968 there were more than 3.5 million people in the armed services, today there are 1.4 million. That’s less than one percent of the population. No wonder modern-day service members see themselves as a group apart, different from ordinary citizens.
As the number of active military members shrinks, the disconnect from America’s shared values deepens. According to a 2020 survey by the Military Times, “More than one-third of all active-duty troops and more than half of minority service members say they have personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks in recent months.”
Despite that development, and with Roll Call reporting in July 2022 that some 17 percent of those charged in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol “were former or current service personnel,” the Senate has encouraged denial of this reality.
The Senate Armed Services Committee recently voted down the Defense Dept.’s efforts to counter extremism. Its recommendation, submitted with the latest National Defense Authorization Act, is that “spending additional time and resources to combat exceptionally rare instances of extremism in the military is an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds and should be discontinued by the Department of Defense immediately.”
Predictably, the committee was divided. All the Republicans supported the recommendation while the Democrats did not. It carried with the help of Angus King, the independent senator from Maine.
For those not in denial, it seems plain enough that what may be happening is the parallel breakdown of community bonds in civilian life and in military culture. It is as if we are suffering from a community-destroying virus whose main symptom is extremism.
That breakdown was suggested in a September 2021 Rand Corporation report on countering extremism in the military. “Community-based approaches” are needed, wrote the American Prospect, with an emphasis on “the importance of communal bonds and the role of the family in pulling soldiers back from the brink of extremism.”
Looking back, I realize that during my time in the Marines I saw signs of a developing alienation separating military and civilian life.
I had volunteered to serve in Vietnam in the fall of 1969. The night before we left for a flight to Alaska, then Okinawa, and finally Da Nang, we were shown a movie, The Sound of Music. It was meant to remind us of the “good war,” a surreal antidote to thoughts that America’s action in Vietnam might be problematic.
In Okinawa, four of us were removed from the group of 200 Marines assembling for the final leg of the trip. We were sent to Iwakuni, Japan. That’s where I learned, in May 1970, that four students protesting the war had been killed at Kent State University. The news distressed me, and I went to talk with a Marine chaplain about it. I had assumed we were involved in the war to protect the rights of students to protest, but the chaplain begged to differ. He said it served them right.
Two years later, while stationed in North Carolina, I was ordered to help guard the Marine Air Base during an anti-war demonstration outside the main gate.
I realized then, in a moment that again seemed surreal, that the protestors agitating against the war were trying to protect me, too. I knew we thought about the war differently, but we were working for the same purpose: to build a secure, peaceful, and just nation, not with lies but through clear-eyed, truthful dialogue.
The viral extremism running through the veins of our nation today is making it hard for us to see these moments of shared purpose.
But I feel them in the juxtaposition of contemporary LGBTQ culture in Provincetown and the monuments of the community’s military past.
I suspect that if the many Provincetown veterans memorialized here were to return from their graves, they would see their service as more than worth the sacrifice. For there is no real conflict between those who serve to protect the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and those who find freedom here to celebrate the sheer joy of life.