About two years ago, there was an article called “‘Did You Ever Kill Anyone?’ 5 Things Not To Say To A Veteran” that made its way through various social media sites popular with military veterans. The story identifies five specific topic areas, such as PTSD and killing in combat, as off-limits to ask veterans about. I thought I’d share my personal reaction to that article and the questions it addresses.
As a veteran with multiple combat deployments and more than twenty years of service, I disagree completely with the fundamental premise that there are any questions that the American people shouldn’t be allowed to ask American veterans.
To the contrary, as veterans I think we should be talking to our civilian peers about all five of those things because they are fundamental realities of our way of life. I’ve been asked every one of the questions on that proposed conversational “no-strike list,” and I don’t find them offensive.
Some veterans do, and that’s OK; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still talk about them. In fact, when it comes to these or any other legitimate questions related to military service, I think our default setting should always be “I’m a veteran, ask me anything.”
Furthermore, instead of zeroing on what non-veterans should not say to vets, I think we should focus more on how veterans should engage with non-veterans. I think the first thing for veterans to realize is that people asking probing questions about the military are most likely not bad people, they’re just curious people. They probably don’t even know that some of the things they’re asking might be offensive or inappropriate, so it’s up to us to educate them in a way that allows for future dialogue. I guarantee that if you’re a veteran, you’re going to get asked these kinds of questions; it’s good to just go ahead and start preparing for them.
The next thing for us veterans to realize is that we don’t know everything, and that not every problem in the world can be explained by what we personally experienced in combat overseas. Online, in social settings, and especially in the college classroom I’ve seen too many vets think their opinion matters more simply because they’re veterans; sometimes that’s simply not the case. We need to remember that we’re not all experts in everything, and there are many things we can learn from our non-veteran colleagues as well.
We’re not completely blameless either when it comes to thoughtless questions; in hindsight, I’m quite sure I asked many unintentionally-inappropriate questions to my friends who had a different profession, religion, sexual orientation, or country of origin from mine, not because I’m an inconsiderate toolbag (well, not just because of that) but because I was genuinely curious. At the end of the day my non-military friends and I all ended up smarter because we weren’t afraid to ask each other questions—any questions. I think that’s almost always the case.
So, my brothers and sisters in arms, I suggest that we all execute a little tactical patience with the non-veterans we interact with. Until and unless they demonstrate clear intellectually-hostile intent, take any chance you get to practice some positive civil-military engagement.
Remember that if they’re asking you these kinds of questions, it’s most likely because you’re the first veteran they’ve ever talked to, and if that is the case, whatever impression you give them is the lasting impression that they will have of all of us, and our entire profession of arms. If they care enough to ask, shouldn’t we care enough to answer?
For my part, I’m normally just so happy that someone cares enough to ask a real vet a real question about military service that there is almost nothing I won’t talk about if asked. This was particularly true during my time in graduate school when most of my friends and classmates were non-veterans. Both in the classroom and in social settings, we all adopted an informal “no offensive questions” policy meaning the person being asked the question wouldn’t take offense at anything that was asked, because no offense was ever intended. After all, if someone is asking questions to genuinely better understand someone else’s experiences, lifestyle, or worldview, can ANY question truly be “offensive?”
What I’ve done below is imagine a situation where I’m back at the bar with some of my young college friends, and how I might answer the five so-called off-limits questions. My intent in writing this is to give veterans some things to think about when responding to these kinds of questions, and to give non-veterans some perspective and some things to think about before asking. I want to emphasize that these questions do not reflect the nuance or the intellectual depth of the ones I usually get asked by my non-veteran friends and especially my former college classmates, these are just the ones that people are being told not to ask.
What follows are my opinions only; every veteran’s experiences are unique, and individual answers will vary widely, especially in different settings and with different audiences. I don’t presume to speak for all of my fellow veterans, as they’re quite capable of speaking for themselves. But I am a veteran, and I’m speaking now. So crack open a cold one, lean back in your bar stool, and let’s have a conversation. I’m a veteran, ask me anything.
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