This amazing iconic photograph shows a deep truth that’s very relevant on this Veterans Day. Look into the eyes of the leaders of the free world on May 2, 2011, the people who’ve just greenlighted the raid on the demon behind 9/11. In the front row, from left, you have Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama, Brigadier General Brad Webb (who’s in the big chair, at Obama’s insistence). Then a deputy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. You’ve got Joint Chiefs and White House brass in the back. And they’re all watching a live drone feed from Pakistan of the raid that brought down Osama bin Laden. They ordered it, but now, as they’re watching it go down, they’re utterly powerless. It’s all in the hands of people who, in this post-draft era, have chosen to be a part of this fundamental American bargain: elected civilian leaders make the call. The men and women in uniform get it done. And they did. That smug mass murdering bastard met sweet justice at last.

What I see in this historic photograph is that despite all the power and brass in the room, once the order was given, there wasn’t a damn thing any one of them could do but watch. It was all in the hands of people we honor on Veterans Day.

We honor equally not only the Seals who slew the monster but the chopper pilots who flew them there, and the mechanics who made the choppers airworthy, and the uniformed worker bees who kept the base working and the clerks and the paperpushers and the entire structure of the military up and down, people who’ve signed up for this life, moving their families every year sometimes to this world’s most hostile places and getting paid chicken scratch and knowing that theoretically, and more than theoretically, a bullet or a bomb may come their way and their parents get a big gold star, and all so they can do the bidding of the powerful people in photos like this one, the leaders on whose wisdom the lives of our service people depend.

And so it has been, through decades and generations and epochs of American history, through policies both wise and boneheaded, and the fact that we’re still here is testimony to the people who wore the uniform, regardless of branch or rank, drafted or not, to every single one on the team, brass or dogface or lowliest grunt.

So we entrust our freedom both to the men, women, and binaries in uniform–and to our chosen leaders like those in this photograph. All we can do is express our deepest gratitude to every single one of our military folks, from every generation, from the starred generals down to the kids in boot camp…and to renew our commitment to choosing only the wisest civilian leaders in the future.

Thank you for your service, Veterans!

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