by Ivan F. Ingraham
America’s relationship with its veterans is in crisis. It has been for many years, but it is now acute. The warriors have returned to empty streets. There are no parades; no bugles; no drums and the disconnect between those who have served and the society they represent has never been larger.
I am the son of a Vietnam War-era soldier. My father, though he did not directly serve in Vietnam, served in the U.S. Army during tumultuous times. As a career Army Officer, he struggled with the public’s perception of the military in the post-Vietnam years, being guilty by association with his fellow soldiers.
Further, he did not overstate his service and he was proud of his work, particularly as a research psychologist studying the breakdown of leadership in the NCO corps within the Army and its correlation to rampant drug abuse. His findings in his book The Boys In The Barracks made many higher-ranking officers uncomfortable, but these studies presented the truth about a dire morale situation in the 1970s and he and his team later helped rebuild the Army’s esprit in the 1980s during the Cold War.
His research wasn’t limited to active-duty subjects. He spoke regularly with former soldiers about leadership, discipline issues, and unit cohesion during the war to ascertain the origins of the Army’s morale difficulties. As with many complex problems, there was not a single, salient answer to this question. Part of his fellow veteran’s issues stemmed from the perception that they were less valued because of their service and therefore their behavior was in some way justified.
The classic study of military-civilian relations is Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Soldier and The State.” Published in the 1950s, it addresses the divide between a standing, professional military force and the society it serves. Democracies tend to want a military that understands its role within a larger hierarchy, but also one that is able to fight and win on that society’s behalf. Huntington saw that divide as one that would gradually increase if the population didn’t have a baseline for service and understanding of the military. That gap is particularly pronounced with nearly 99% of the American population not having served in the wars of the past 20 years.
In his eponymous book, author Studs Terkel called World War Two, The Good War. Upon return in 1945, Americans felt they had fought a “just” war against an evil and oppressive enemy that required all members of society to contribute through military service or serving the state. Their reward was a country that enjoyed the most prosperous economy in modern times. This came on the heels of the end of the war whereupon America not only emerged from the Great Depression but also profited handsomely rebuilding the very countries they fought to capitulation. In its wake, World War 2 allowed the world to recover, albeit at America’s pace.
Though many veterans were draftees, the feeling that the Nation had collectively done its duty was nearly universal. There was a shared sacrifice. From war bonds to victory gardens, to scrap metal drives, virtually every family had at least one member in uniform. Everyone at least had a frame of reference to the war, and while not all veterans were Marines, Rangers, or Paratroopers, most felt they served honorably in a “just” war. Parades were common. Witness celebrations of VJ Day in Times Square and the 82nd Airborne marching down Broadway in NYC on January 13, 1946. A myriad of homecomings followed across the country.
It was a time of peace and prosperity. The American veteran attended college under the nascent GI Bill and was almost guaranteed a well-paying job upon completion of their studies. A veteran applying for a job would more than likely be asked about their service, the nature of their military experience, and what that would lend to a new career. This was poignantly captured by Gregory Peck in the film, “The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit.” It became less common to find someone who had not served. Being a veteran was part of the employee landscape.
This prosperity came at a tremendous cost. World War II cost nearly 117,000 U.S. dead. The American people only paid that dearly for their ideals once before during the First World War. They would not do so again.
Americans don’t mind wars so long as they are waged in such a way that they do not bring pain to their people. It took the Vietnam War to create this public mindset. The draft, post-1960s counterculture, and other societal factors forced the Vietnam veteran into a role as a cast-off member of the American population. A large portion of the country was mad at the government and mad at the war. The returning veteran served as an avatar for this anger and the acknowledgment of their service didn’t come until 1983 (?) with their own belated homecoming parade in Washington, D.C.
Veterans returning from Vietnam faced scorn and ridicule and it is no wonder that many felt confusion and shame for doing their duty. The cliché of the homeless, PTS-plagued veteran became quite real in the years following Vietnam as witnessed by the numbers of veterans seeking help for their war-induced maladies, many of them mental.
Tied to Americans serving in Vietnam was that of anti-establishment counter-culturalists. Whether through deferment or outright dodging of the draft, the perception that poor and minority populations fought an “unjust” war was signally felt across the population. Career soldiers were further divided from the draftee due to a sense that professional soldiers were suckers (“lifer” being a commonly uttered derisive term) and that draftees were slovenly, sub-par performers not worthy of acknowledgment by their career peers and leaders.
Even while the war was ongoing, the stigma attached to being a Vietnam War veteran became such that many hid their service because of shame or the pretext that their country didn’t want to know them, that they had served as an extension of a capitalist society that didn’t understand its own people, and that they were to blame for a host of social issues in the immediate post-Vietnam era. It’s understandable that so many returning veterans had a hard time re-assimilating
Unlike World War II, society largely turned its back on the Vietnam generation in favor of once again looking to the future. Most who hadn’t served had an opinion on the matter but didn’t care to know the type of experience the veteran had endured. In many ways, Hollywood provided the narrative with movies such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon. From there, the stereotypical Vietnam veteran lived poorly, on the fringes and enjoyed a quiet existence at the VFW shunned from active congratulations due to a collective guilt. They were no more to blame for that than those who eschewed their service.
They, too, could enjoy a college education, but better to let the past remain in the past when it came to their service. Significantly, they shared direct links to the World War II generation and that may, in fact, have saved their overall psyche. Approximately 91,000 dead surely had something to do with it.
September 11, 2001, changed the world. Overnight, America found itself fighting in a distant country most associated with Soviet defeat followed within 18 months by the invasion of Iraq many felt should have been defeated a decade previously during the Gulf War. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the most monetarily expensive the Nation has ever waged. They cost nearly 7,000 dead, too.
These wars were fought exclusively by volunteers. Leadership lessons from past wars were applied as closely as possible to make soldiers better in combat, though the nature of combat has not changed. Like the preceding wars, some veterans were recognized for bravery. Most served honorably and well. A minority served dishonorably.
This brings us to the present: What of the Afghan and Iraq veterans? I have found the perceptions people have of us as veterans are layered. Universally, however, the onus is on the veteran to prove their worth. Not because they served, but rather in spite of it.
As a Veteran transitions from military service, they are frequently told: “You are not your Rank, Military Occupational Specialty, Unit affiliation, Qualifications. No one cares.” Often, this comes from fellow Veterans, some of them transition coaches. When I was told this during my own recent transition, it seemed I was being told to put things behind me to effectively become a functioning member of society.
Veterans are expected to integrate into a society that largely doesn’t understand them, and, as many veterans have encountered, seemingly doesn’t want to, either. Their resume must not contain military jargon or accomplishments. They can’t be seen for what they did or who they were, but more by what they can do for a company.
To this point, I know of one veteran who interviewed with a company CEO who really didn’t understand why the U.S. was in Afghanistan. Perplexed, the veteran felt he was being interviewed because the CEO wanted veterans as part of his workforce, but not for their ability to contribute to it. To this veteran, it was clear that having veterans within the organization was more about what doing so would do for the CEO’s stature.
For the modern veteran, the decline in stature is firmly on their shoulders. It is they who must change. It is they who are different and must adapt to everyone around them. In many ways, while the country is proud of them and their fellow veterans, they are quietly not acknowledged, and, in some regards, that stems from a collective guilt by the 99% who didn’t serve.
It is such that former members of the armed forces are forced to the background of society so as not to usurp the balance of a country that doesn’t want to acknowledge the true sacrifices of an all-volunteer force.
Like the WW2 veteran, the veteran of modern wars can find their way to college and a good-paying job. But unlike the WW2 veteran, they need to be prepared to disavow their service to a certain extent. Those who serve or served are thanked for their service (and I think this is appreciated, certainly) or perhaps enjoy a discount at a local store, but that is more of a platitude since people largely don’t know what to say to veterans. We are still young in many cases and don’t “look” like the veterans of other wars, who are “old” by comparison. “Thank you for your service,” was the mantra since people didn’t know what to say. It also became a sardonic punchline.
Similar to the Vietnam veteran, our service isn’t necessarily appreciated and our society doesn’t really know how to talk to us. Witness the final 13 members of the Armed Services killed in Afghanistan who are now largely forgotten. Less time is spent in the media on them or Afghanistan in general than on the general mismanagement of the American Congress, and we veterans are now faced with trying to navigate a society that seemingly doesn’t care what we did since, well, we volunteered for it.
As veterans, we are left on our own to deal with our service as a minority of individuals. Don’t believe me? Once a veteran moves away from a military town, they are largely alone in the world of those who served. Our shame and/or pride is an individual journey, one that navigating alone is difficult, if not impossible, and the path is not clear. We are a hybrid of our forebearers’ experiences. Along with us is our society which is no closer to understanding us than they are of who we became as a result of our participation in our Nation’s longest wars.
For me, I would rather share who I really am and what made me than hide it or try to repackage it for easier consumption. Veterans are in need of a conversation about who they are with the goal of being understood, not diminished. It is the least their country can do for them.
Ivan F. Ingraham is a freelance writer and veteran. He served for 24 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Special Operations Officer.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.