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Soldier Appreciation Beyond Swedish Veterans’ Day

May 29, 2013

Last week, as I got on the MetroRail in Washington, DC, I noticed a young soldier, wearing his camos on the train. The man sitting next to me stood up and walked over to the soldier, shook his hand and said stridently: “From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for your service.” The soldier straightened his posture and smiled. Three or four other people on the train looked up from their Blackberry’s and followed suit with the same gesture.

Contrasting this experience to a train ride in Stockholm, I thought to myself that the chance of a similar event happening in Sweden is equal to not spotting a hipster with fake glasses on Sodermalm or in Williamsburg, New York. A uniformed officer on the train in Stockholm is, at best, met with silence and avoidance of eye contact and at worst, met with ignorant questions, such as why Swedish soldiers fight America’s wars on behalf of Swedish taxpayers’ money.

As a Swede in the US, I have encountered countless cultural differences when it comes to the perceptions of soldiers by the average American and the average Swede. Swedes have a tendency to brag about being above the fray when it comes to societal benefits. However, when reflecting upon the perception and treatments of soldiers in the US and in Sweden, Swedish society is lagging behind.

Sure, the perception of the soldier is based on two historically different experiences. It is embedded in Swedish culture that everyone is equal and no one should be entitled to feel as if one is better than anyone else (see: lagom). Being proud of your profession is ok, but crossing the line of being too proud is as socially unacceptable as disliking Astrid Lindgren.

For example, take the Swedish Minister of Defense, Karin Enström’s op-ed in March, where she argued why Swedish soldiers are the most valuable assets within the Swedish Armed Forces and why they are important for Sweden. For an American, this is commonly accepted political platitude. In Sweden, however, these kinds of ‘support-our-troops-statements’ are a rarity. They are not politically accepted by the average Swede and not even taken as granted by Swedish soldiers.

Surely, the support for US troops in the US has not always been as high spirited. Soldiers in the post-Vietnam era were not met with warm smiles and high-fives. Eikenberry and Kennedy’s Memorial Day Op-Ed on Monday, “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart”, warned that in the post-9/11 era, there has been an eroding civilian-military integration as US civilian citizens have become nothing but mere spectators. As a foreigner in the US, their argument seems counterintuitive. Support for US troops is mirrored in every part of American society, whether it is priority boarding on flights, a yellow ribbon tied on a tree or a high five and a beer at a local bar. When comparing the US civilian-military integration to Sweden, it is sad to say that most Swedish citizens do not even bother to join the arena as passive spectators.

Even those whom do join as active spectators, have the tendencies to criticize the soldier directly, which is clearly the wrong target, as Swedish war correspondent and author Johanne Hildebrandt has argued. In the US, Americans may dislike Congressional policies of where troops should be sent, but they still respect and support the US soldiers (and even Swedish soldiers for that matter) who are risking their lives, whether it is in order to secure an Afghan school for girls against the Taliban, or protecting civilian human rights workers in Congo.

Perhaps it is time for Sweden to look across the pond for lessons and reflections upon the two different ways members of the armed forces are being treated. While historically rooted social and cultural norms are hard to break out of, it is time that the average Swede finds pride in the peace-stabilizing efforts Swedish soldiers have contributed to in the Balkans, Somalia, Afghanistan and many other unstable parts of the world. Oh, and dare I say it; Swedes should even let Swedish soldiers cross the unaccepted line and be very proud of their profession every day of the year.

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One Comment
  1. Robbin, FS21 permalink

    Good article! However I feel that there are so many differences between the countries and so many different things that makes it hard for the swedes to feel the same way about their soldiers as the American people.

    One good example is that, in my own opinion, very few of Swedish soldiers is actually in the army for the pride of the country. Every Swedish soldier puts pride in the task they’re currently set out to do and they’re proud to serve with some of the best women and men in the country but few, if any at all, are doing it for the politicians, the people or the “motherland” itself.

    I think that most, if not all, American soldiers are doing their military service because they think that they are serving the country/people of America and they are proud because of that. I’m aware that some soldiers just enlisted to get out of poverty/prison (or similar) but I think that their mindset is totally different than the Swedish soldiers. American soldiers also have a different enemy/focus. They’re fighting the talibans and the ones that attacked their country. We’re more focused on stabilizing and helping the afghan government. Building schools for women or wells with clean water etc.

    One thing that disturbs me is the lack of knowledge and the total lack of communication from Försvarsmakten about what Sweden is actually doing in Afghanistan and the “taboo” that is war. It happens that Swedish soldiers are in “tics” (troops in contact) and it happens that we are wounding or killing enemy fighters. Instead of actually reporting truthfully and with all information about this, all you can read are short texts in the media or on Försvarsmaktens homepage.

    I did not do my service to get credit from media, politicians or anyone else. I am proud and so are my family and friends. That’s enough for me but it would be nice with some appreciation every once in a while.

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