The title of an article about World War II caught my eye. It proposed that those affected by the war might be “heroes,” “victims,” or “survivors.” The answer, based on what I could tell from the abstract, resolved on “survivors.” Not that a “veteran-survivor” might not be a hero or a victim, too, or both, but the implication was that those who had seen war were chastened and humbled by the experience, toughened also, but mostly just glad to be alive and content to occupy a quiet place in worldly affairs afterwards. The idea made me think about veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It made me wonder if the definition of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans could be reduced to such clear-cut one-word options. In 100 years, when scholars look back at 2016, probably yes, but in our current moment the choices are more confusing.
We might discard “survivor” right off the bat, for the term doesn’t reflect a prevailing sentiment, as far as I can see, either in veterans’ own minds or in the nation’s collective consciousness. But there’s plenty of evidence that “hero” and “victim” demarcate an either/or range of possibility for how veterans perceive themselves and present themselves and also for how they are viewed by society-at-large. The celebration of the military prowess of Medal of Honor winners, super-snipers, and combat leaders such as General James Mattis, as well as the frequency with which ex-military members of both major political parties are elected to public office, point to the respect accorded veterans. But the presence of troubled vets and a large national conversation about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Department of Veterans Affairs signal the strength of the image at the other end of the spectrum: veterans in need of sympathy, pity, and help, veterans who place demands on the nation to explain exactly what it owes its fighting men and women and how much it shares responsibility for their pain.
The literature written by veterans and by civilians about veterans favors the latter image; in 2016 alone, novels such as Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Maximilian Uriarte’s The White Donkey, Elizabeth Marro’s Casualties, and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood portray modern veterans post-war either traumatized or rendered ambivalent and alienated by time in uniform and duty in Iraq. War fiction seems not yet to have figured out how to portray protagonists unproblematically as heroes or as more complex blends of the hero-victim binary. Even American Sniper, the most important, compelling, and popular life-story of an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran, pings between the two poles. In both the memoir and the biopic, Chris Kyle is a legendary fighter, but he also breaks down as a result of multiple deployments. Still, it’s not unfair to say that both book and movie tilt heavily toward celebrating Kyle’s heroic aspects. Only Aaron, the bad-seed veteran portrayed in Roy Scranton’s 2016 novel War Porn, seems to be a robust effort to break down the hero-victim binary or propose an alternative—the veteran-villain? But Aaron, deeply unsympathetic, might be the iconoclastic exception that proves the rule.
Literature is not real life, and veterans every day decide to what degree their military experience is important and how much of it they want the people they meet to consider. These decisions range from whether to wear a ball cap displaying a unit insignia to deciding to run for elected office as a distinguished warfighter. On the part of the non-veteran public, everyone that meets a vet is honored, intrigued, or made uneasy by the encounter; for veterans, the feeling of being given the judgmental once-over is palpable. In turns, veterans are uncomfortable about being honored, outraged by hostility, and try not to disappoint when met by curious interest. The individualized process of judgment plays out writ-large on the national scale. Even the fact that there are so few actual veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan becomes a major source of debate: is it a problem, and if so, what should we do about it?
Both reflecting the times and helping us understand such questions is the rise of the academic field of veterans studies. This summer, Virginia Tech hosted a three-week symposium titled American Veterans in Society. I was fortunate enough to attend for a day and learn something of the program’s goals and tenets. One of the co-directors, an old Army friend named James Dubinsky, whom I first met in graduate school many years ago, explained his belief that veterans have always exerted an important but understudied force in American public life, from the post-Revolutionary War era onwards. In other words, war is important, but also important are the social permutations wrought afterwards as returning veterans in numbers enter adult private and public life. The University of Missouri-Saint Louis is one of two colleges that to my knowledge have formally created a “Department of Military and Veterans Studies” (the other is Eastern Kentucky University). An outgrowth of the UMSL veteran services office (a feature on almost every college campus these days), the “MVS” initiative offers classes leading to a minor in which students obtain “a nuanced understanding of the military and veteran experience, the role veterans play in our society, and the obligations our society might hold towards this subset of our population” (from the UMSL MVS website). Concurrent with the Virginia Tech and UMSL programs, Mariana Grohowski, a professor at Indiana University-Southeast, has begun an online scholarly journal titled the Journal of Veterans Studies. Recently the JVS has acquired an official online home in the academy, courtesy of Colorado State University Open Press. Here is a self-description of the JVS mandate:
We understand veterans studies as a multi-faceted, scholarly investigation of military veterans and their families. Topics within that investigation could include, but are not limited to, combat exposure, reintegration challenges, and the complex systems that shape the veteran experience. Veterans studies, by its very nature, may analyze experiences closely tied to military studies, but the emphasis of veterans studies is the “veteran experience,” i.e., what happens after the service member departs the armed forces.
Elsewhere, the JVS asks:
1. Who is “the veteran in society?”
2. How do power structures like race, class, gender, and sexuality affect the veteran from claiming his/her
3. Who “counts” as a veteran?
The second question is bound to be perceived by many white, male, politically-conservative veterans as finicky academic hair-splitting that emits the whiff of a liberal social agenda. That’s to their detriment, but even staunchly conservative veterans know in real terms the force of the first and third questions. In which branch did you serve and what was your job? How many times did you deploy? Did you see combat? The answers are the first and last things veterans want to know about each other and for better or worse order and underwrite a veteran’s credibility and right-to-speak. The simple questions and gut responses have deep historical, social, and psychological roots and long political and practical consequences that the academic veterans studies aims to investigate.
My particular interest—contemporary war literature, art, and film—is only one aspect of the new veterans studies field and hardly the most important one. Still, the world of imaginative representation is never too distant from the real world it tries to reflect and illuminate, and things are about to get very interesting in the realm of war art and narrative. Looking back at the portraits of modern veterans in fictional works such as the Fire and Forget anthology (2013), edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, and Phil Klay’s collection of stories Redeployment (2014), one can’t help but notice how physically static are the depictions. In story after story in both works, veterans don’t do much but sit and talk, usually in bars, but also classrooms, dorm rooms, apartments, and any number of other private and public places typically occupied by young people who have not yet gotten started in life. That’s OK, because they are fresh from war, but the portraits offer little evidence by which we might judge how a veteran’s military service informs an adult life full of decisions, actions, commitments, and complicated human relationships.
But five years on from the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, ten years from the hard fighting in Fallujah, and some fifteen years from the beginnings of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the adult lives of Global War on Terror veterans are now taking shape in unpredictable ways. Veterans have placed a lot of distance between themselves and their deployments, life-wise, but emotionally the import of their service, only half-sensed as young men and women, might now reside within them more coherently and consequentially and given firm expression through significant life choices and expressions of opinion. The election of President Trump certainly adds new dimensions to the dynamic. For every Iraq and Afghanistan veteran disheartened by Trump’s election and worried about his stated hostility toward the Department of Veteran Affairs, there’s probably three who welcome his ascendancy as correspondent with their own viewpoints, while others are ambivalent, thinking that it just doesn’t matter in terms of their personal lives who’s at the top. It will be very interesting to see how the new veteran sensibility plays out in the Age of Trump, both in life and in the stories and artworks that accompany life.