They have also had mixed results in the performance of their assigned duties, running the gamut from extraordinary heroism to abject cowardice.
All learned just what Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman meant when he famously said, “War is hell.”
For many years, from the earliest days of pre-modern civilization, men have gone to fight for various purposes, some of them noble and some not so much.
Men who believe in a cause are the best motivated. But another factor was the potential for personal glory.
Often, it was the leaders – egomaniacal types from Napoleon to Patton – who sought the glory and other various spoils, while their soldiers did as they were told to do, without regard for their own opinions or personal motivations.
But that trickled down into notions of heroism and glory among the ordinary folk, as exemplified by the lusty spirit with which many Southerners went to war against the Union in the 1860s.
There was similar sentiment on the other side as well, best described in Stephen Crane’s novel “The Red Badge of Courage.” Henry Fleming, the protagonist, goes against his mother’s wishes and enlists in the Union Army to fight the Rebels with simplistic notions of proving his bravery in combat.
However, he is terrified by his first battle and runs away from the fight.
Vietnam seemed to bring about the end of the notion of soldiers winning glory in battle. Much of the literature about Vietnam, both fiction and non-fiction, focuses on disillusionment of those who arrived in country with dreams of battle glory.
Despite the sanguinary nature of the 1860s, despite the horror of trench and chemical warfare of World War I and the advent of modern technological war – including atomic weapons – in World War II, despite the unsatisfying experience of Korea, there were volunteers and career military men who took pride in America’s unbeaten record in war and were eager to add victories to the list.
Soldiers of the Vietnam generation not only learned better on the field of battle, but then had to contend with scorn and abuse from those on the homefront when they came back.
About the time of the end of the Vietnam experience, America converted to an all-volunteer professional military force.
The early 1970s presented some stern challenges to that experiment. To many people, joining the military ranked right down there with recreational diving in septic tanks.
But the military learned more than mere strategic, tactical and geopolitical lessons in Vietnam.
And, hopefully, some in the civilian world learned a little about how to properly go about voicing negative opinions about government policies.
At any rate, the effort to create and sustain an all-volunteer force has to be labeled an unqualified success.
Ever since 9-11, the image of the military has taken on a new shine. Terrorists have reminded us that sometimes it becomes necessary to take action.
Many of us seem to have learned to differentiate between pragmatic patriotism and adrenalin junkie glory-seeking.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who named duty, honor, country as the soldier’s bywords, would approve.