Are Honor Flights Actually About Making Us Feel Better?

The Long March
Retired Army Air Corps Sgt. James White, World War II veteran, looks on at the Joint Service Color Guard present the colors during a ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on April 26, 2014. The World War II veterans were from all branches of the military.
U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Antwaun Jefferson

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The other day as I passed through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, I saw an Honor Flight group deplane. In this instance, it was 187 Korean and Vietnam vets flying into D.C. from Appleton, Wisconsin, to see the memorials and generally take a last lap of honor.

Passengers hurrying to their departure gates paused to clap. I think I even saw one businessman wipe a tear from the corner of his eye. It was straight out of a Budweiser commercial.

Fine, as far as all that goes. I agree with the impulse to demonstrate gratitude, especially toward vets of Korea and Vietnam.

But what worries me is that this sort of ceremony falls into the category of momentarily honoring older vets while ignoring newer ones, and the ongoing wars in which they fought, most of the time. In other words, are we doing this because it is the right thing to do, or because it makes us feel better? If we really cared, would there be as many homeless vets sleeping in Walmart parking lots?

What I mean by that is that, as a nation, we have offloaded our wars of the last 17 years onto 1 percent of the nation. We have put them through repeated rotations, giving them far more exposure to days and months of hypertensive, adrenaline-pumping situations than any World War II vets underwent. We know from World War II what 150 days of combat exposure does to the human mind. We really don’t know what 2,000 days of worrying about mortar fire and roadside bombs does. But we are finding out.

So, are Honor Flights what we do in order not to pay attention to what is really going on? The more applause I hear in airports, the more suspicious I become. As Phil Klay writes in the May issue of The Atlantic: “America as a whole chooses to express its love for its military in gooey, substance-free displays, our military waits, perhaps hopelessly, for a coherent national policy that takes the country’s wars seriously.” (Klay also had a piece in the Sunday New York Times that I also would quote, but it quotes a guest column that ran here by Mackenzie Wolf, so that would be too circular.)

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The USS Eagle 56 was only five miles off the coast of Maine when it exploded.

The World War I-era patrol boat split in half, then slipped beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. The Eagle 56 had been carrying a crew of 62. Rescuers pulled 13 survivors from the water that day. It was April 23, 1945, just two weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

The U.S. Navy classified the disaster as an accident, attributing the sinking to a blast in the boiler room. In 2001, that ruling was changed to reflect the sinking as a deliberate act of war, perpetuated by German submarine U-853, a u-boat belonging to Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine.

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Then, a group of friends and amateur divers decided to try to find the wreck in 2014. After years of fruitless dives and intensive research, New England-based Nomad Exploration Team successfully located the Eagle 56 in June 2018.

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That was from a video posted on YouTube on Sept. 26, 2012, several weeks after Tice went missing near Damascus, Syria, while working as a freelance journalist for McClatchy and the Washington Post.

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