Thanks so much to my classmate Stephen for this moving essay. It stirs so many reactions for me. Like Stephen, I became a psychiatrist after Princeton. Although I have not served in the military, for 20 years I have been adjunct professor of psychiatry at our nation's military medical school (the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences). Several times, I have helped teach the required course on military medical ethics. The course is fantastic. Some years, though, the reactions of some students worried me. A few of them seemed to have lost their moral compass as a result of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Stephen has spent his career in a world that tests character in numerous ways. It is not easy to balance the obligations of military physicians to help support our troops as a fighting force and our professional obligations to our individual soldiers as well as to a range of other people, including enemy soldiers, suspected terrorists, and non-combatants on any side of a conflict.
I admire how well Stephen has threaded this needle, showing dedication, patriotism, and courage.
Stephen alluded to Princeton students' views of the Vietnam War while he and I were on campus. Many of us strongly opposed the war. But I don't know that many (any?) of us were against our troops. So many of them were drafted, as any of us could have been. Opposition to U.S. military policy at any time need not mean opposition to our soldiers. I think we're much clearer about that distinction now than we probably were in the 1960s.
When soldiers tell us they are tired of hearing "We appreciate your service," I wonder if their resentment of their chain of command is getting displaced onto well-meaning civilians. Yes, we are the civilians who elected our public officials, so we are indirectly responsible. But I also ponder the possibility that it's deeply complicated for anyone in uniform to let themselves know just how much they might resent their Commander in Chief, and others in their chain of command. (Thinking of the Vietnam War, I know some soldiers lost control over that resentment, leading to "fragging" their officers.)