What’s Missing in Veteran’s Day Salutes to Our Soldiers

tags: war, Veterans Day

Christine Lamberson is an Assistant Professor of History at Angelo State University, where she’s the co-director of the War Stories Project.

A few months ago I interviewed a young veteran who served in Iraq between 2006 and 2010. When I asked about challenges he may have faced returning to civilian life, he expressed significant frustration. He talked about how tough it was for him even to decide to be interviewed, explaining that when he left the military, he sensed a profound disconnect between those in the service and civilians. He perceived an obliviousness on the part of most Americans concerning men and women serving abroad and felt a huge cultural gap between himself and them. He repeatedly expressed gratitude for the support he had received—people welcoming him home at the airport for example—and also noted several times that the situation was much better now than it was for his father who served in Vietnam. Still, he said he eventually just stopped talking about his service, because of the frustration and anger he felt about the disconnect between civilians and the military.

This interview was part of a public history project that I co-direct, which aims to collect documents and first-person accounts of West Texas veterans and their families from WWI to the present. Though the project is ongoing, it has already become clear that many veterans feel under-recognized in society. There is a real thirst for acknowledgement among these veterans, especially among individuals who served in recent wars from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan among others.

Vietnam veterans often tell stories of returning from service late at night, avoiding wearing a uniform in public, and still sometimes finding themselves in physical altercations with antiwar activists. Some of these veterans have seen a project like ours as a long-missing chance for recognition of their experiences. In contrast, more recent veterans are welcomed home with appreciative signs and those wearing their uniform in public are regularly thanked for their service, recognized on airplanes, applauded at sporting events, and so on. Still, as is well-known thanks to the work of activists and journalists alike, such as David Finkel, in an age of a ubiquitous “support our troops” culture, true understanding of what military service entails and how it influences veterans and their families can be difficult to come by. The Iraqi veteran mentioned above strongly stated that true understanding simply was not possible. Yet, he and other recent veterans who participate in our project have echoed this gulf between surface recognition and actual understanding.

Perhaps the best, broadest characterization of what many veterans seek, as we’ve learned from our interviews, is engagement--between veterans and their families, the halls of academia, and the public at large. Neither the public at large nor academia is very good at this engagement, however, especially the type of engagement that encompasses diverse voices and points of view; that bridges the lived experience, professional scholarship, and popular interest.

As we approach Veteran’s Day, a new round of remembrances and commemorations are set to begin. They join the many retrospectives, (re-)evaluations, and commemorations for the centennial of World War I and the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War, including the much-criticized official Department of Defense commemoration. These events are opportunities to promote such engagement between veterans, their families, the public, and, especially in the case of more distant wars, professional historians. For historians, in particular, they present a chance to initiate a historical dialogue with the public and to share new scholarship and insights with a broader audience about the history of U.S. foreign policy and the experience of military service.

Yet, they also pose a number of challenges, and perhaps because of those challenges, they are often missed opportunities. With their celebratory connotations, commemorations, in particular, often elide nuance and complication, downplaying mistakes and criticism in favor of patriotic narratives emphasizing sacrifice and heroism. Such commemorations are frequently moments to celebrate and express gratitude to veterans, which might not inherently require rehashing policy debates, but as the controversies over the DoD Vietnam commemoration highlight (see here, here, and here), the events are also important entries in the writing of national history, often self-consciously so, rendering simplification problematic. As noted above, surface recognition hardly constitutes true public engagement with the experiences of soldiers and their families, but for some veterans, especially those from wars like Vietnam, it’s better than nothing.

Importantly for historians, commemorative and anniversary events help shape collective understandings of past foreign policy decisions and sometimes-controversial wars. The bluntly ideological and nationalistic DoD commemoration has garnered protests by historians and activists alike for clear reasons related in part to their silence about the very large antiwar movement, which included numerous veterans.

Many of these events occur with limited academic attention, however.1 As academic historians, we too often dismiss them as jingoistic and simply aren’t involved in them. Yet, in light of their role in shaping the public’s understanding of history, we must participate in anniversary and commemorative events more frequently. If not those specific events, we need to more frequently engage in other public history activities relating to the military and the everyday experiences of soldiers and their families in order to participate in shaping this public historical narrative.

It is not always easy to see how to do that, however. With the exception of military historians, who are small in number, academic historians tend to be most substantially engaged in scholarship about foreign policy, dissent, and the home front rather than on either veterans’ or military experiences.

At the same time, I’m repeatedly struck by just how divorced public discourse about the military, and even many veterans themselves, is from foreign policy. In some ways, this isn’t surprising in light of military’s emphasis on following orders and the “support our troops” culture. Yet, one of the fundamental tenants of a democracy is that the people do get a say in policy, including foreign policy. Further, in an age of an all-volunteer military, all soldiers have at the very least made a deliberate decision to sign up to carry out U.S. policies while those who choose not to enlist must consider the effect of our policies (both abroad and on American soldiers at home) in order to understand fully their consequences.

To put this another way, there seem to be two conversations taking place. One is about foreign policy and another about the experience of veterans and their families. Yet, it seems that these two conversations largely remain disconnected from one another with academics being much more active in the former.

While the disconnect between military service and foreign policy shows up throughout history, its current iteration is a particularly post-Vietnam phenomenon. With the exception of VVAW, anti-Vietnam war activists often pitted themselves against veterans. Activists quite publically and prominently criticized soldiers, even those who were drafted, holding them responsible for their participation in a hated war (hence the thirst for recognition mentioned above). The current dissociation of policy discussion from soldiers and veterans swings in the polar opposite direction and is in some ways a reaction to the earlier model. Separating policy and service is a way to isolate policy criticism from the military and even a way to marginalize policy debates.

Academic and professional historians need to do a better job in urging a third option, one that recognizes and examines the relationship between U.S. foreign policy, veterans and their families, and the general public’s support or lack thereof for those wars. Recent history has a lot to say about these connections. In order to do that, we need to participate in public history projects, write for popular audiences, and be part of events—whether commemorative or not—that appeal to a public audience. We also need to bring the histories of veterans’ experiences together with the history of U.S. foreign policy and even popular dissent to show the links between these subjects.

1 The publishing of topically related academic books is one major exception to this statement.

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