A Theory of Veteran Identity

A Theory of Veteran Identity

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A Theory of Veteran Identity is my attempt to address the problems of homecoming and reassimilation experienced by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. A hybrid project containing research, memoir, and reflections upon my work within veteran service communities, it speaks to military veterans seeking to contextualize their experiences, researchers looking for a theory capable of being applied to both social problems and cultural artifacts, as well as non-veterans and non-profit leaders seeking a deeper understanding of the Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans they serve.

Read the abstract and download the dissertation in its entirety here.


Excerpts

From the Introduction

A Theory of Veteran Identity

I received an Honorable Discharge from the United States Army in November 2006, ending nearly four years of service overseas, two of which were in Iraq. Since returning to the “civilian sector,” I’ve been a student for ten years, a college instructor for five, the leader of a non-profit organization for four, an editor, an art therapy workshop leader, and I’ve held an array of other positions, all of which could serve as the foundation for a post-war identity. Still, I consider myself a “veteran” above all else. Don’t think that I’m alone. Count the number of veterans’ license plates during your next trip to the supermarket. See how many WWII, Korean War, or Vietnam War ball caps you can spot at an outdoor event. Or, as subtler evidence, look for those inconspicuous individuals who salute rather than place their hands over their hearts during the playing of the national anthem. Just a few years of service in the military renders an individual a “veteran” for the rest of his or her life. Aside from recognition of accomplishment and sacrifice, and beyond the “support the troops” rhetoric woven into the fabric of our national defense policy, does anyone know who decided that veterans should have an identity of their own? Does anyone know why?

I hope to advance a theory of veteran identity useful to those who want to articulate the needs of returning Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. It is not my intention to create a more complete historical narrative of the veterans’ return home experience. Such teleology is best left to those in the field of history. The sociological contributions and strains placed upon society by veterans are relevant to my theory, but they will ultimately supplement rather than determine what I have to say. Nor is it my aim to diagnose the psychological ailments of a few veterans and create a mold that fits them all; I especially want to avoid that sort of stereotyping because it has been used, generation after generation, to vilify or glorify veterans according to the politics of time and place. Historical commentary about returning veterans is common. Sociological research is conflicting. And psychological theories change almost as quickly as they’re developed. My goal is to establish an interdisciplinary framework for discussing veteran identity that could best be described as a combination of social and literary theory.[1] That is, I will treat individual performances of veteran identity, existing historical, sociological, and psychological scholarship about veterans, and cultural representations of the wars they fight dialogically, as equal parts of a single text.

I will look critically at practices which impede veterans’ attempts to rejoin society, namely patriotism and mythmaking, but especially the performance of veteran identity itself. There is no patriotic handbook, no “best practices” for weaving veterans into larger myths of national identity. Nor can I point to some elite group and say, “There, those are the ones making war and ruining veterans’ lives.” My argument is ethical, deeply rooted in personal experience, and the sources I draw from offer competing, often conflicting histories of veterans’ lives. The topic of this dissertation is veteran identity as it presents itself in literature, film, and criticism. My subject, or the broad text I intend to examine, is the American unconscious. Of course, in dealing with an unconscious, whether in an individual or in a culture, problems of language emerge. How should I discuss a thing which, by its nature, eschews description? Dennis Sobolev’s The Concepts Used to Analyze Culture: A Critique of Twentieth-century Ways of Thinking (2010), a study which also looks empirically at the discursive practices constituting an unconscious culture, expresses a similar problem:

[M]ost of the mechanisms I aimed to analyze were either completely unconscious, or contained an essential unconscious aspect. But what did it mean that these mechanisms were ‘unconscious,’ what kind of analytical vocabulary could be used for their analysis? … Are these mechanisms related to the instincts, drives and traumatic experiences of the past? To repressed desires or the death instinct? Or perhaps to the mythic primordial ‘archetypes’ of the human race? Do they exemplify Lacan’s ‘unmeant knowledge’ or semiotic dissemination? Or, perhaps, Althusser’s imaginary ‘centering’ of the subject by means of the categories of ideology? … The existence of these unconscious mechanisms is not an exception from the general structure and functioning of culture; on the contrary, in many important senses, it is the very essence of culture—the essence of that invisible collective cosmos which forms the existential and experiential world of the empirical subject. Furthermore, pondering over different theoretical approaches and cultural studies, I came to the conclusion that I was not the only one who had come across this problem. On the contrary, decade after decade, generation after generation, different scholars of culture had continually arrived at the unconscious substratum, silently struggling with the multidimensionality and complexity of the problem, as well as the complete absence of a language with which to speak about it. (1-2)

Sobolev’s topic, twentieth-century culture, is much less focused than my own. I deal with one element of the American unconscious: veteran identity. I will isolate veterans within a larger system of belief, discuss the symbolic roles veterans play within that system, and use my findings to critique both perceptions and performances of veteran identity. If I repeat certain arguments, or alter them slightly as this document progresses, it is for the benefit of my reader. I will employ a process of divergent thinking,[2] examining perceptions, stereotypes, expectations, and performances of veteran identity which lack physical referents, which are often viewed as unrelated, but which pertain directly to the veteran’s lived experience.

To read this dissertation, some readers will find that they must suspend belief in patriotic rhetoric. Patriotism works. Belief in national superiority is a great way to keep the populace invested in American democracy. But can patriotism work better? Can the practice of patriotism change to better accommodate veterans and their perspectives? How does patriotic rhetoric intersect with military experience to define the individual veteran’s existence? For example, to declare a veteran a “Hero” places that individual in a new symbolic position, one with discernible privileges, but also one which carries responsibilities. [3] A “Hero” has the power to inspire others, to represent communities, to denounce war or justify it. In Basic Combat Training, for example, the new recruit is told that the last name worn on his or her chest is evidence they’re representing family honor while abroad. Such rhetoric inspires recruits even as it surveils their behavior. In the first chapter, I argue that society protects the symbolic position of the “Hero” more than any individual who carries the title. In the second chapter, I discuss how certain patriotic gestures are stigmatizing, even damaging to veterans casually referred to as “Wounded Warriors.” The symbolic positions occupied by “Heroes” and “Wounded Warriors” are not easily vacated, forcing some veterans to hide their wounds and perspectives out of shame, or out of fear that they can’t live up to others’ expectations. I ask my readers to suspend belief in patriotic rhetoric long enough to examine “Heroes” and “Wounded Warriors” critically, as stereotypes that are sometimes earned, sometimes given, but always performed.

This part of my argument is ethical. It is not founded in my research, but rather it is concerned with the symbolic roles I believe veterans should play within the American unconscious. In short, I believe veterans should be storytellers. I think veteran testimony needs no motivations, the horrors of war speak for themselves, and taxpayer dollars should be invested in projects which disseminate veteran literature and artwork to the masses. I have struggled with how to write ethically about this topic, and I have concluded that such work is impossible without implicating the societies which produce veterans. As a veteran, I am perplexed at how the perspectives of service men and women are whitewashed out of history books, mass media, and the academy. As a scholar, I can’t understand why all veterans do not have the authority granted to me as the author of a doctoral dissertation. I studied for ten years so that I would have the right to launch these thoughts into the ephemeral plane of serious discourse. How many years does a member of the military have to spend in combat before he or she is deserving of the same privilege? Where do veterans go when they want to be taken seriously?

My complaint is this: there are platforms, institutions, and government dollars invested in distributing works of scholarship such as this one. However, no such parallels exist for members of military communities. There are arts and therapy-based programs working incongruently to solve the problem. But American culture has no public institution or mandate dedicated to educating the public about war’s impact upon the individual. The results of providing veterans with the skills and opportunities needed to share their stories in such a manner would be myriad: serious consideration of the wars we fight; increased awareness about the wounds veterans endure; empathy toward those “Others” war decimates; and perhaps a decreased appetite for hyperviolent media, which could in turn reduce violence in other settings. Again, much of this is already happening, and I am writing from the vantage of someone who started a non-profit organization dedicated to the same mission.[4] What I envision is something much more prominent, a center of power devoted to the sharing of veteran ideals, an entity or a place so great that the words issued from within carry weight in both the physical and the symbolic realms. For veterans, conveying the experiences, emotions, and lessons of war should be as normal as standing for the national anthem, wearing a uniform, or carrying a rifle. I imagine self-definition as an explicit part of the return home process. I don’t know what veterans will say if they’re given such an opportunity. But it will most certainly result in the creation of new forms of veteran identity.

Wars are fought by the poor, the young, and the disenfranchised. “War,” in the words of Smedley D. Butler, “is a racket.”[5] Similarly, William Tecumseh Sherman asserts: “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell” (“William T. Sherman” 6). No one disputes these facts. War, as well as the culture which produces it, is accepted as a necessary evil. The topic of this dissertation is not war, however; it is veteran identity. I am interested in what comes after war, but also the moment in which an individual becomes a “veteran,” in both the real and symbolic meanings attached to that title. I am distinguishing between the physical and the symbolic existence of the veteran because no other approach has solved the challenges of veteran reassimilation.[6]

Symbolically, veterans carry the guilt of perpetrating war and the stigmas attached to the changes war creates within them. Many veterans are proud to perform this role, and they find solace in knowing that they are carrying wounds for the sake of others. It is a beautiful sentiment. When veterans decide upon the significance related to war wounds, those wounds transcend their categorical meanings, signifying something greater and always contrary to the intent of the person or persons who inflicted them. Veterans possess this transformative power inherently. It is a power stored physically, as gunshot or shrapnel wounds, or mentally, as Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or as a multitude of subtle changes in the veteran’s personality, demeanor, or mannerisms. Each veteran existing in the physical world has access to this transformative, symbolic power, and treating the body as a site of memory has many precedents. Michael Rossington and Anne Whitehead, for example, recognize that “most contemporary accounts of memory begin with the premise that it is not located in the mind of a human being or animal but is rather an aspect of the brain’s behavior which necessarily is both mental and physical at the same time” (2). Veterans exist in the physical world as individuals. But they also exist symbolically within the American unconscious as signifiers of meaning. This dissertation explores the overlap between the physical and the symbolic, in how representations of veterans and performances of veteran identity impact veteran quality of life in the real world.[7]

For now, I wish to more clearly define the terms I will use in probing the American unconscious, and to paint a clearer picture of the symbolic and liminal role veterans occupy in the present. Currently, veterans serve as repositories for memories of war. This function describes the nature of their existence, and it is one I will spend the entirety of this dissertation trying to deconstruct. Veterans signify heroism, woundedness, or individuality based on how they express themselves. But mostly, the veteran’s signifying abilities are rooted in perception, in how civilians interpret wounds, knowledge, scars, and skills brought home from war. Veterans are civilians. Both groups are human beings, citizens, bystanders, or perpetrators in varying degrees. War is humanity’s burden. But symbolically, due to their increasing isolation from their civilian counterparts, phenomena rooted in the socioeconomic disparity between those who fight wars and those who do not, veterans shoulder both the guilt of perpetrating war and the stigmas attached to it. They do not tell stories. They contain stories. Much work takes place within the American unconscious to make these things possible, to prevent an equal sharing of war’s consequences. I want to shed light on this work.

Some readers will view my complaints as a form of entitlement. Others view service men and women as “losers” unable to hack it in the arenas of higher education or the civilian workforce. Yes, I volunteered for military service. But this dissertation suggests that I didn’t have all of the facts. Economists scouted my region.[8] Politicians drew up the contracts. [9] In my case, a high school guidance counselor forced me to meet with a recruiter to avoid expulsion.[10] But mostly, it was a larger undercurrent of myths and mythmaking which lured me into military service. Certain people go to war. Maybe it’s because they make a choice. Maybe it’s because they never had one. Many of the scholars I quote in this dissertation have made careers writing about war. All members of this privileged society benefit from a strong military, but especially from the fact that wars are fought elsewhere, in foreign lands and in the homes of those we simply choose not to consider. My underlying assumption is that war is evil, and in using this word “evil” I know that I have crossed into the territory of morality, of subjective reasoning. I recognize the problems inherent with subjective analysis, including the risk of extending my own narrative to account for the philosophies, predicaments, and motives of others, especially those I presume to share a like mind. I also recognize that words such as “evil” are not always acceptable in scholarly circles, and that because of the moral stances I am prepared to take, many will dismiss what I have to say outright.

Still, war is evil. The needs of returning veterans are not being met, and personal ethics prevent me from writing in a way which suggests otherwise. My argument can be made succinctly, but by no means should it be read as simple: war recreates itself with each generation, first by luring disadvantaged youths into military service with myths of heroism,[11] later by appropriating the symbolic authority granted to them as “veterans.” Despite centuries of literary and artistic depictions of the horrors of war, contemporary representations of war and homecoming provide veterans with only two forms of identity to model: the “Hero” and the “Wounded Warrior.” These identities fail to account for the unique obstacles faced in each veteran’s attempt to rejoin society. They do not provide veterans with outlets for the altruism and desire to grow into leaders instilled in military service. They are symbolic positions created to sustain war, not the veteran. Stereotyping and placating veterans—the “thank you for your service” urge of the twenty-first century—robs them of the moral authority to comment on the wars they fight, but also the right to self-definition, the agency which leads young men and women to war in the first place.

Patriotism

Patriotism comes in both positive and negative forms. But it uniformly maintains the inescapability of veteran identity. I would like to draw upon W. E. B. DuBois here, not because the struggles of freed slaves reflect the difficulties of returning veterans, but because what comes after struggle in any form is an immediate search for peace. DuBois, like many of the veterans featured in this text, also felt “different from the others” (2). In The Souls of Black Folk he grapples with liminal African American identity, wondering if it is “possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American” (3). After the Vietnam War, and largely due to the fact that veterans were blamed for it, 37% of veterans surveyed expressed a desire to live in a country other than the United States (Severo and Milford 358). This theme of alienation is present in representations of war throughout the twentieth and-twenty-first centuries. I will discuss many of them in this dissertation. The language and practice of patriotism varies slightly from war to war, from generation to generation. Today, patriotism suggests that veterans are the very embodiment of American identity, a social group which draws upon multiculturalism to accomplish its missions, one capable of overcoming great adversity because of its diversity. This rhetoric is a departure from the ways Vietnam Veterans were treated, but it still assumes that veterans return to an idealized society. Patriotism, as a practice, consumes diversity, redefines adversity to suit its needs, and replaces genuine dialogue between veterans and civilians with hollow gestures and platitudes. Like DuBois I’ve discovered in myself a sort of “double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (2). I don’t like what I see. Through the eyes of others veterans see themselves only as they were in the past. Worse, the passage of time demands that the veteran’s past be rewritten to accommodate more savory narratives of war. Such demands separate the pain of war from any real context. The pain becomes an abstraction, an intangible wound doomed to forever bleed. Not surprisingly, the future is impossible when in the shackles of such conformity.

It was April 2005. I’d had two hours of sleep when I woke up to my platoon sergeant standing over my cot. He asked me to go with him outside of the tent where we could talk in private. Initially, I thought I was in trouble, that I’d left some sensitive item in the humvee following the previous night’s mission. But that wasn’t the case. As we exited the tent, entering into the sunlight beaming down on that patch of desert just north of Najaf, Iraq, I recognized our platoon leader standing next to a stranger.

“Specialist Martin of Somerset, Kentucky?” asked the man that I did not know.

“Yes, sir.”

“When was the last time you talked to your family?”

“I don’t know, a month or so ago, sir.”

My platoon sergeant asked, “Do you have a brother?”

“Yes.”

I looked up at the stranger to see a cross on his lapel. He was a chaplain. I knew immediately that something was wrong back home. I didn’t have time to guess what it could be. “Your brother is dead, son.” It took three helicopter rides and an airplane to get me out of Iraq. In twenty-four hours I would set foot on three continents and still miss the funeral. And that’s what it is like to get a Red Cross message while at war.

I tell this story because it put me in a rare position. I was yanked out of war and sent home with no preparation. I was neither wounded nor had I completed my four years of “honorable service.” And when I changed out of my uniform, soiled with the sand and sweat from weeks in the field—or, more accurately, the desert—I looked and sounded like everyone else. Still, I was different. And it was at this point in my life, based on the way I was treated, that I first recognized that difference.

Everywhere I went, war was all anyone wanted to talk about. They’d bring up stories heard on the news, and I would respond with either clarification or affirmation, but I soon found they preferred the latter. “Do you think it is worth it?” friends would ask. Acquaintances would inquire if I knew so-and-so, as though everyone in the military is on a first-name basis. “Have you ever killed anyone?” asked a distant relative, making me so angry that I couldn’t speak; I could only excuse myself and mutter obscenities in the driveway. It became the first instance of the same question repeated by those who watched movies like Full Metal Jacket (1987) for their understanding of war. I was more forgiving when kids would ask the question. But adults? I thought it plainly offensive.

Perhaps strangest of all, amid the grief inflicted upon me and my family by my brother’s death, I received displays of patriotism in place of the type of sympathy commonly shown to those who’ve lost immediate family members. After sorting through my brother’s belongings because my parents were unable, I’d hear “thank you for your service.” Even at my brother’s memorial service, people went out of their way to tell me how proud they were of me. I didn’t want to be the center of attention. I wanted to be left alone to grieve. I didn’t want to spend my leave walking on eggshells, afraid to break with others’ conceptions of veterans. Then, after two surreal weeks of performance, I returned to Iraq, where no one wanted to talk about war or the military.

My feeling of difference continued in the years immediately following my discharge. I’d spent four years overseas, learning to spot threats and to maintain an aggressive demeanor. I learned to associate dead animals on the side of the road with bombs. Angry looks or aggressive posturing predicted an ambush. We drove with guns pointed out of our windows and mounted to the tops of our trucks. On the back of each vehicle was a sign: “Stay Clear 50m. Deadly force authorized.” Even among friends, because of the hyper-masculine nature of the military, I learned to expect daily fistfights. In my 2003 deployment, “beat downs,” in which one endures an onslaught of fists and boots from 10-15 platoon mates, served as sanctioned rites of passage for the newly promoted, birthday gifts, or off the record punishments. In 2005, when we returned to Iraq, we arrived with a new game: Someone would lay a dollar bill on the ground. Everybody would stand in a circle, talking as though they didn’t see it. Then, someone new would join the circle and see the dollar. When that person went to pick it up, everyone would jump on them and start throwing punches. It was called “The Dollar Game.” I endured this behavior. I also participated in it.

From what I can tell, feeling threatened both inside and outside the wire is common among those deployed to warzones. Veterans return having spent years on edge, honing the hypervigilance attributed to PTSD as a means of survival. They come home and find dad wants to arm wrestle. Co-workers code-switch, speaking what they think is a military dialect by raising their voices and puffing up their muscles. Teachers tiptoe around the topic of war in the classroom, ever deferring to the token veteran’s opinion, as though every GI Bill-toting private is an expert strategist or General. The religious tell them that they need to “pray harder” when they find it difficult to sit in the church pews of their youth. Violent thoughts begin to feel like sins. Still, they find it impossible to accommodate strangers who want to pat them on the shoulder. Even handshakes are threatening because of the code switch to a more masculine posture, the very one I watched out for as a machine gunner in Iraq. Veterans try to explain to their loved ones the pains of being different. They confess their dirty, violent thoughts and attribute them to the past. But the only advice they’re given is to “forget about all that and start living in the present.” So, they try. And they soon find that people won’t let them forget, that they’ll forever be reminded of a past which indicates their difference. Within the text I am examining, the American unconscious, there is a script to which veterans must adhere. Furthermore, veterans are prevented from straying from the script by a confluence of unspoken beliefs and expectations.

Mary C. Sengstock, a sociologist interested in matters of culture and race, views the “persistence” of difference as a line which separates cultural and racial identities: “[M]ulti-cultural individuals usually have a major advantage that multi-racial persons do not” (68). This advantage, Sengstock claims, is in the multi-cultural individual’s ability to “hide” difference, to avoid being reminded that they are “not part of us” (69). Those of mixed race, Sengstock claims, cannot hide; they are marked by physical difference. Veterans share a common set of disabilities, but these are not as pronounced as the physical differences of race. Perhaps, if veterans had uniforms like their active duty counterparts, they could claim physical difference, but they do not. Nevertheless, it is difficult for veterans to “hide” who they are on the inside, so much that it might as well be on the outside. In these ways the shared experience of homecoming transcends the types of shared experience found in other communities. Put simply, veterans must exist publicly.

The capacity for violence possessed by veterans—their tacit knowledge of death—is real. Every recruit, from the Navy yeoman to the Army grunt, is taught, in some manner or another, how to inflict violence upon others. At the same time, civilians exaggerate the threat this fact presents to them, pretending as though they are incapable of such violence, reinforcing the separateness of a veteran culture. Hyper-violent, almost pornographic representations of war produced by Hollywood are the greatest sources of this exaggeration. In these films, year-long deployments of killing and being killed get distilled into a few hours of orgasmic pleasure for civilian audiences, making it appear as though survivors of war are something other than human. The only veterans I’ve known to enjoy such films are those who experience memories of war trauma on repeat in their minds. They seek out external stimuli which correspond with inner turmoil. Civilians appear to have little more than a morbid curiosity. This curiosity results in the permeation of war violence throughout mainstream media. Many veterans find this violence to be a painful reminder of war from which they’ll never be able to “hide.”

Eric J. Leed, a historian of World War I, articulates the experience of war as “an arena of instinctual liberation” (No Man’s Land, 196). He argues that civilians have come to believe that “[t]he figure educated in this arena was necessarily someone who had been primitivized, barbarized, and infantilized, demoted on the scales that measure and define civilized adulthood. The veteran, with his dangerous powers and his penchant for violence, was a threat to the society of his origins. He was someone who had to be reintegrated, reaculturated, reeducated” (No Man’s Land, 196). Leed’s reading of WWI holds true of the contemporary veteran’s return home experience: “primitivized, barbarized, and infantilized” are ways some members of society define the word “veteran,” but such pejoratives also shape veterans’ conceptions of themselves.

Veterans who question the identities ascribed to them, who wonder why such violent memories merit such extreme praise, are reminded of the many other veterans who endured combat before them; if they dare express symptoms of post-traumatic stress as something other than victimhood they are told to “get over it.” Then, if they begin harboring resentment toward the institution of war, they’re considered unpatriotic, even traitors. It’s not often that films glorifying the enslavement of African people, the genocide of Native American people, or the murder of countless “others” gets produced. But war pornography is as abundant today as it was after WWI. The inability to “hide” from such inaccurate, offensive representations of war inflicts actual harm upon veterans.

Surveillance is another practice reminding veterans of their difference. Those recently discharged veterans who want to “hide” find quickly that they’re being tracked: all enlistees must complete years of inactive service beyond their initial obligations. Later in this chapter, I will explain how, in 2009, returning veterans were added to a terrorist watch list by the Department of Homeland Security. Even veterans’ license plates and government health care services populate registries accounting for their whereabouts. Veterans cannot collect education benefits in anonymity. Student veterans must report to staff members at the universities responsible for administering them. In fact, when I worked as a graduate assistant for a university veteran resource center, much effort was put into placing the letter “V” alongside the name of each veteran enrolled at the school. These efforts are conscious and unconscious. And most are benevolent. But they still reinforce difference.

Veteran difference “persists” and its continual reiteration sets the stage for a one-sided conversation between veterans and civilians. Veterans watch as Hollywood dramatizes them as merciless killers or helpless victims, listen as friends and family ask insensitive questions, and remain silent as parades march around them, memorials rise above them, and strangers salute them as members of a culture, but never as individuals. The “persistence” of the veteran’s difference is caused by the insistence of civilians desiring that veterans exist publicly and according to a one-dimensional cultural script. Sengstock argues that such reminders are damaging in a racial context: “They were present forever and could reassert themselves at any time. Even people who had long since become comfortable with their multi-racial background and identity could be reminded months—or years—later that they really did not belong. This was largely due … [to] the fact that so many people in the community as a whole felt free to question their identity and comment upon it” (Sengstock 69). Much of what Sengstock claims holds true for veterans. It’s not personal. The damage of constantly being reminded of one’s difference is a product of the emotional investment of society in its patriotic myths. Importantly, racial difference is created and maintained through emphasis upon superficial characteristics such as skin color which exist in the physical realm. Racism extends beyond the physical realm to include stereotypical representations of these superficial characteristics, but these representations always refer back to physical difference. Contrariwise, veteran difference emerges from the symbolic realm, from within the American unconscious, and it is created and maintained within patriotic myths, in stereotypes which both describe and alter the individual veteran’s performance of identity. Both racial difference and veteran difference shape performances of identity.

Generally, but not as a rule, I decline the offer to stand and receive applause when musicians or speakers try to recognize veterans at events. Unintentionally, I’ve discovered such refusals are taken as political statements to those aware of my veteran identity. The best way to describe the look I’ve grown accustomed to receiving is to liken it to the one a person might get after spitting on the American flag. To some, by refusing to stand I am refusing the patriotic gesture offered and claiming that it is insufficient. Personally, I refuse to stand for several reasons, some more reasonable than others. Firstly, I don’t care for praise when a speaker attempts to levy it upon me for the sake of others. Is patriotism a chore? Admittedly, and this harkens back to my experiences in Iraq, I refuse to stand because I do not want to become the target of physical violence. Mostly, however, I despise the three to five seconds of being gawked at and analyzed by those sitting in my vicinity. I’ve watched as their eyes go up and down and side to side, not in judgment but in genuine attempts to discern exactly what a “veteran” looks like. After standing as the recipient of some cheap applause, I’ve found that the discomfort persists throughout the remainder of the event. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise: the ritual results in no longer being a part of the crowd. To be recognized as exceptional is still to be recognized as different.

In its more insidious form, patriotism is scripted by social architects. Take, for example, the “half-time tributes” common at NFL football games: “Between 2011 and 2014, the Department of Defense paid 14 NFL teams a total of $5.4 million and the National Guard paid $5.3 million to 11 teams to ‘honor America’s heroes’ before games and during halftime shows” (“Paid Patriotism” 8). I doubt such deceptions were what George Washington had in mind when he said, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” The difference between the public’s attitude toward war during Washington’s time and today is that veterans are not permitted to consider war’s justifications, at least not openly. If civilians follow one patriotic script, veterans follow another, which prohibits them from questioning the source of their identity. After all, civilians run the government and veterans’ hospitals, and they control the other sources of agency earned during service; it would be unwise for veterans to bite the hand that feeds them. This pressure to conform to a patriotic script represents the inescapability of veteran identity, and it explains the resulting silence displayed by veterans who “choose not to talk about war.” Again, this pressure to remain silent is inescapable; it is something from which veterans cannot “hide.”

Patriotism is a subjective experience, not a universal one. For those harmed by its effects there are others who benefit. But it is not as simple as gain or loss. Accepting patriotic gratitude carries implicit expectations: conforming to those narratives of war endorsed by the state, condoning all actions of the military—past and present, privileging one’s veteran identity over all others. These expectations are the price veterans pay for the reverence they receive. Patriotism, then, can be viewed as an exchange. Sometimes, it is an attempt to make reparations. But reverence bought is no reverence at all. Wilfred Owen, one of the “Great War Poets” of WWI, referred to this exchange as “the old Lie” in his famous poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori. (Owen 17-28)

The last lines translate as, “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.” In other words, Owen challenges the notion that the action of dying for one’s country because it is sweet and proper imbues the act with meaning. Instead, death perpetuates war, and the reason for war becomes war itself. Owen’s famous maxim, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity” (qtd. in Hollinghurst 82), reflects the author’s larger efforts to destabilize the myth of war’s glory by associating it with “pity.” Many war authors have tried and failed to wage written arguments against war. Tim O’Brien, for example, perhaps the most famous author to emerge from the Vietnam War, flatly refused to accept others’ definitions of “war” and the “war story” in The Things They Carried (1990): “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior” (68). Patriotism fails to account for the reality of veterans’ lives because of the absurdity written into its script: “They have been afflicted by war, our chronically human illness. The sufferings they experience tell us about contemporary strains of our disease, about the ways histories are violently made and unmade in a process of forgetting and remembering” (Leed, “Fateful Memories” 80). Veterans are essentially told that it’s okay for a country to selectively recruit disadvantaged youths and send them off to factories of death and dismemberment. It is okay for a nation to eat its young so long as there’s a paycheck and the appropriate amount of applause gets distributed. And in this conversation which juxtaposes veterans alongside the politics of race and culture, I can’t help but wonder how we—civilians as well as veterans—have come to denounce slavery as an evil but not war. Patriotism, as an exchange, is little more than commerce, than human trafficking.

Recruits are no doubt aware of the positive aspects of patriotism. It is written into their enlistment contracts as entitlements, performed in their schools by marching bands and members of the JROTC, bought like advertisements on national television, and it elevates all veterans to the status of “Heroes,” regardless of their individual service records. Patriotic rhetoric requires heroic examples in order to function. By contrast, visibly wounded or disillusioned veterans undermine patriotism. As such, those who championed the original GI Bill meant to restore “veterans to a place in society not lower than they were likely to have attained had they not served in the military” (Altschuler and Blumin 207-08). The Department of Veterans Affairs explains the history of the GI Bill on its website:

Despite their differences, all agreed something must be done to help Veterans assimilate into civilian life.

Much of the urgency stemmed from a desire to avoid the missteps following World War I, when discharged Veterans got little more than a $60 allowance and a train ticket home.

During the Great Depression, some Veterans found it difficult to make a living. Congress tried to intervene by passing the World War Adjusted Act of 1924, commonly known as the Bonus Act. The law provided a bonus based on the number of days served. But there was a catch: most Veterans wouldn’t see a dime for 20 years.

A group of Veterans marched on Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1932 to demand full payment of their bonuses. When they didn’t get it, most went home. But some decided to stick around until they got paid. They were later kicked out of town following a bitter standoff with U.S. troops. The incident marked one of the greatest periods of unrest our nation’s capital had ever known.

The return of millions of Veterans from World War II gave Congress a chance at redemption. But the GI Bill had far greater implications. It was seen as a genuine attempt to thwart a looming social and economic crisis. Some saw inaction as an invitation to another depression.

Harry W. Colmery, a former national commander of the American Legion and former Republican National Chairman, is credited with drawing up the first draft of the GI Bill. It was introduced in the House on Jan. 10, 1944, and in the Senate the following day. Both chambers approved their own versions of the bill.

But the struggle was just heating up. The bill almost died when Senate and House members came together to debate their versions. Both groups agreed on the education and home loan benefits, but were deadlocked on the unemployment provision.

Ultimately, Rep. John Gibson of Georgia was rushed in to cast the tie-breaking vote. The Senate approved the final form of the bill on June 12, and the House followed on June 13. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law on June 22, 1944.

The Veterans Administration (VA) was responsible for carrying out the law’s key provisions: education and training, loan guaranty for homes, farms or businesses, and unemployment pay.

Before the war, college and homeownership were, for the most part, unreachable dreams for the average American. Thanks to the GI Bill, millions who would have flooded the job market instead opted for education. In the peak year of 1947, Veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions. By the time the original GI Bill ended on July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II Veterans had participated in an education or training program.

Millions also took advantage of the GI Bill’s home loan guaranty. From 1944 to 1952, VA backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for World War II Veterans.

While Veterans embraced the education and home loan benefits, few collected on one of the bill’s most controversial provisions—the unemployment pay. Less than 20 percent of funds set aside for this were used.

In 1984, former Mississippi Congressman Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery revamped the GI Bill, which has been known as the “Montgomery GI Bill” ever since, assuring that the legacy of the original GI Bill lives on, as VA home loan guaranty and education programs continue to work for our newest generation of combat Veterans.

In 2008, the GI Bill was updated once again. The new law gives Veterans with active duty service on, or after, Sept. 11 2001, enhanced educational benefits that cover more educational expenses, provide a living allowance, money for books and the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to spouses or children. (“Education and Training” 4-17)

The history of the GI Bill is more than a story about political legislation. It is a story about veterans recognizing war as a predatory institution, demanding compensation, and rightly so. However, written between the lines, there’s also a story about civilians consciously trying to figure out ways to help veterans to rejoin society. There was no consensus about what role veterans should perform collectively, so access to higher education in general gave veterans a way to redefine themselves, to reenter the civilian workforce, but also a way to place their experiences within larger historical and sociological contexts through a liberal education. Over time, military service became synonymous with higher education. Disadvantaged youths from impoverished regions began to see military service as upward mobility.

Civilians are not some nefarious villains, holding secret meetings, deciding who lives and who dies in arbitrary wars. And not every recruit enlists in order to get an education. Patriotic gestures are almost always well-intentioned. It’s not a crime to show national pride or to praise veterans for their sacrifices. Rather, my argument suggests that there are unintended consequences, that patriotism, as a practice, should be revised to better account for the reality veterans experience when they return home from war. The GI Bill no longer guarantees upward mobility. The concept of a “liberal education,” which teaches veterans to contextualize their memories and emotional experiences, has been whittled away by austerity and “teaching to the job.” Nonetheless, military service bestows upon veterans a measure of symbolic authority, and changes to the ways veterans are compensated for their service should include teaching them how to exercise that authority, how to become leaders within the society they take oaths to protect. Veteran storytellers have the power to disrupt the prevailing patriotic narratives shaping their lives. But the communities which emerge from these acts of narration must include both veterans and civilians. The private works to become a sergeant. The lieutenant works to become a captain. Eventually, enlisted leaders and officers gain power and respect by taking on subordinates, younger soldiers with their own ambitions, and these leaders advance in rank based upon how well they lead and educate younger troops. In the civilian workforce, there are leaders, managers, and educators. In the military, an individual occupies all of these positions at once. And the attitudes, ethics, and ambitions of members of the military do not simply vanish once they become “veterans.” Veterans want to educate, to continue growing as leaders in the communities they enter into after war. But they cannot do these things in a vacuum.


Notes

[1] Terry Eagleton’s preface to the “Anniversary Edition” of Literary Theory: An Introduction (2008) defines “literary theory” as “a kind of meta-discourse. Rather than figuring as one way of speaking about literature among others, it adopts a critical stance to other forms of critical analysis. In particular, it tends to suspect that much of what they say is question-begging. Critics may ask whether a particular narrative twist is effective, but narratologists want to know what this strange animal called narrative is in the first place, and are reluctant to be fobbed off with our intuitive sense that everyone can recognize a story when they see one … All reading involves interpretation; but hermeneutics inquires into what goes on when we interpret. A critic might speak of a literary character’s unconscious; a theorist is more likely to ask what a ‘character’ is in the first place, and whether the text can have an unconscious too” (viii). Again, it is not my intent to produce a more comprehensive historical, social, or psychological narrative of the veteran’s return home experience. Rather, this dissertation seeks to undermine war as an institution and reveal systems of thought which marginalize veterans as social group. A literary theorist’s examination of veteran identity examines both conscious and unconscious systems of thought symbolically, thoughts unavailable to those researchers who approach the problem with a single disciplinary approach.

[2] M. Rajamanickam’s Experimental Psychology with Advanced Experiments (2005) differentiates between “convergent” and “divergent” thinking: “The production type of thinking may be also stated as convergent thinking. This convergent thinking is leading to a single correct answer. It is a process of thinking in which a common attribute is abstracted from many different ideas. In convergent thinking everybody may be thinking alike, but there is only one correct response. All others are wrong … The other aspect of production type thinking ability is divergent. Since this is an offshoot of thinking ability it is also called divergent thinking. It is a process of thinking in which many different ideas or solutions are generated from a single idea or problem. This may take a number of directions and also it consists of generation of multiple responses. Anyone or more than one of which may lead to [a] correct answer. In divergent thinking there is no single correct response, the value of responses depends upon its suitability, usefulness and meaningfulness” (378). So, I will begin with the single topic or problem: “veteran identity.” By treating the American unconscious as a literary text, I will be able to isolate veteran identity within a larger undercurrent of mythmaking and rhetoric. From there, I will conceive of new ways of thinking about veteran identity, ways which diverge from the perceptions and treatment of military veteran in both the real and symbolic realms. Ultimately, I hope that the observations and approaches within this text provoke dialogue—further divergence—within communities of veterans and those interested in their reassimilation.

[3] This “literary theorist’s” approach to war recognizes the value of interdisciplinary research, and in viewing the problem of war through various critical perspectives, it becomes quite clear that many problems concerning veteran identity are rooted in language. In cultivating a voice through which to wage my arguments, “semiotics,” or the science of signs and how they function, emerges as a tool capable of separating symbols from the meanings they convey. Put another way, this dissertation will isolate veterans from the symbolic functions of “Hero” or “Wounded Warrior” they have been assigned. Arther Asa Berger describes semiotics “as a form of applied linguistics,” and argues that “human beings [are] sign-making and sign-interpreting animals” (355). Berger draws upon Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916) which helped establish “semiology” as a discipline concerned with language as a “social institution,” or a “system of signs that express ideas” (15-16). I will maintain that veterans function as symbols, a “subcategory of a sign” (Berger 355). As symbols, I argue, veteran identity conveys a wealth of information about war, military service, and veterans themselves; but seldom do they signify consciously.

[4] I founded Military Experience and the Arts (MEA) in 2012 and served as its President and Editor-in-Chief until 2015. During this time, MEA helped veterans and their families publish more than 500 works of fiction, non-fiction, artwork, poetry, and research in eight edited collections. MEA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, volunteer-run organization whose primary mission is to work with veterans and their families to publish creative prose, poetry, and artwork. MEA’s volunteers are located all over the world, including college professors, professional authors, veterans’ advocates, and clinicians. As such, most of MEA’s services are provided through email and in online writing workshops. All editing, consultations, and workshops are free of charge to those accepted for publication. Veterans and their families pay nothing for MEA’s services, and they never will. In addition to its primary publishing mission, MEA hosts online and in-person writing workshops and orchestrated national symposia in 2012 and 2015. MEA’s in-person events are free or low-cost opportunities for veterans and their spouses to build skills in the creative and therapeutic arts (“Who We Are”).

[5] Smedley D. Butler, a retired Marine Corps General and two-time Medal of Honor recipient, wrote a speech and short book in 1935 entitled, War is a Racket. It is recommended reading for those curious about the individual conflicts of interest which arise when war is waged to safeguard commercial interests. I cite it here because Butler is an example of a veteran who is aware of the symbolic authority granted to him by his military service. Coincidentally, War is a Racket has enjoyed renewed popularity in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

[6] Berger elaborates on the topic of symbols and signification in Cultural Criticism: A Primer of Key Concepts (1995) explaining that “semiotics comes from the Greek root semeion, or sign, and is used to describe a systematic attempt to understand what signs are and how they function. Semiotics is probably the more commonly used term, but some students of signs use the term semiology, literally ‘words’ (togas) ‘about signs’ Semiotics is associated with the work of the American philosopher, C. S. Peirce (although its roots are in medieval philosophy) and semiology with the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (Atkin). Both are concerned with how meaning is generated and communicated” (355). My concerns, perhaps, will go a step further, exploring the consequences of signification in the lives of military veterans.

[7] In “Identity Adjustment among Afghanistan and Iraq War Veterans with Reintegration Difficulty,” Orazem, Frazier, Schnurr et. al. analyze the thematic elements of writings produced by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The participants, “100 randomly selected veterans,” conveyed “feeling like one does not belong in civilian society” and “having difficulty finding meaning in the civilian world.” The authors conclude, “Identity adjustment is a critical yet understudied aspect of veteran reintegration into community life following combat deployment.” Research on the topic of veteran identity transcends disciplinary boundaries between the sciences and the humanities and has the potential to transform both individual and societal understandings of war.

[8] Ted Rall, in “Poor and Uneducated, Like We Thought,” challenges the often cited “Who Bears the Burden?” break down of military recruitment trends produced by the conservative think-tank, The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation claims that, “the current makeup of the all-voluntary military looks like America. Where they are different, the data show that the average soldier is slightly better educated and comes from a slightly wealthier, more rural area” (52). Oppositely, Rall argues, “A closer look shows that the socioeconomic distance between America at home and American troops abroad is a gaping chasm. Young men and women from affluent neighborhoods—those with average household incomes of $100,000 or more—are three to four times less likely as those from poor and lower middle class areas (under $50,000) to serve in the military” (8). This difference in opinion centers on what constitutes “rich,” and what constitutes “poor,” with conservative data skewing results to make it appear as though military recruits start with higher levels of wealth and education than their non-military peers. In my experience, few enlisted troops held degrees that were not from for-profit degree mills, those who came from wealthy, affluent areas were typically officers, and a much higher proportion of African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities were represented among the enlisted ranks than among commissioned officers.

[9] In 2014, Vice reported on the U.S Military’s data collection agreements with public schools: “More than 30 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 25 have details about their lives stored in a Pentagon registry called the ‘Joint Advertising Market Research Studies’ (JAMRS) database, their names, phone numbers, email addresses, ethnicities, and other identifying information available to recruiters 24 hours a day. Since 2001, any school that receives federal funding is required under the No Child Left Behind Act to provide the Pentagon such data on all students in 11th and 12th grades, as well as grant recruiters access to their campus” (Davis 5).

[10] In “Should We End Military Recruiting in High Schools as a Matter of Child Protection and Public Health,” published in 2011 in the American Journal of Public Health, Amy Hagopian and Kathy Barker compare military recruiting practices in U.S. high schools to “predatory grooming,” or “the process by which a child is befriended by a would-be abuser” (30), concluding with the following recommendation: “We suggest public health advocates in the United States monitor and, where necessary, rein in the behaviors of military recruiters in our schools as a matter of protecting child health and welfare and as a step toward bringing the United States into the family of nations that has ratified the treaty on the Rights of the Child. As a first step, the No Child Left Behind Act should remove the mandate that public high schools admit military recruiters” (42).

[11] This claim about “socioeconomically disadvantaged youths” is germane to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also veterans of wars fought by so-called “all-volunteer” armies. Historically, wars have always been fought by disadvantaged populations: slaves, conscripts, draftees, and poor people with varying degrees of agency (or no agency at all), and these populations are always under the control of officers, a wealthy and more powerful social group. Books about war are written by and about those in power. Arnold Krammer’s Prisoners of War (2008) asks, “Why did soldiers over the centuries put themselves at such risk? There are as many reasons as conflicts. Some soldiers fought because it was their profession; others joined an army to make extra money after the harvest. In naval countries military service was often involuntary. Sailors were shanghaied while drunk—pressed into service by groups of thugs. More often, however, men who went to war did so as true believers in a cause, ideological, religious, or political” (11). Of course, it is possible to “believe” in a cause while simultaneously being subjected to the classist rhetoric which makes it believable. And, in any society governed by “true believers,” going against cultural norms results in ostracizing, belittlement, and further marginalization. In dealing with veterans as they are perceived in the American unconscious, I am attempting to circumnavigate rhetoric, politics, and cultural representations of veterans which only tell one side of the story.