In Search of Post-9/11 Veterans’ Missing Perspectives
“We, as warfighters, yearn to give a narrative to our story, to the war we fought, to make sense of the madness.”
Recent discussions at military blogs and elsewhere raise important questions about moral injury and the Post-9/11 wars. With generous support from a Google Global Impact award, we surveyed over 8,400 recent warfighters on their military and post-service experiences. What we learned surprised us and revealed something troubling: warfighters’ experiences in the Post-9/11 wars and in post-service civilian life are too often missing from our national public consciousness and discourse. Despite a deluge of award-winning writing by recent veterans, including this generation’s invention of the war blog, sustained national interest in this war and its warfighters remains limited at best.
Missing Perspectives, Missing Strategy
The first point we want to emphasize is, thus, one of missing perspectives. We have noticed an overarching lack of deep interest—even on the part of the public, federal agencies that collect data on servicemembers (for benefits allocation), and academic researchers—about warfighters’ perspectives on the Post-9/11 wars and their personal impacts. As Sebastian Bae writes, “despite a decade of war, today’s veterans remain faceless, marginalized from society—either heroes or villains.” Significantly, “‘thank you for your service,’” Bae adds, “represents the banality of society’s understanding of the nation’s wars and the men and women who fought them.”
This lack of in-depth, evidence-based inquiry is also—unfortunately—common across academia and in government. Scholars know a lot, for instance, about the “greatest generation” of World War II veterans, Korean and Vietnam—even Civil War veterans. But aside from health and wellness studies, Gulf War I and Post-9/11 veterans—a cohort facing some of the most complex battlefields, unprecedented deployments, and the highest service-related disability rates (see Table 1)—have received far less attention by social scientists, in education data efforts or in programing on college campuses (with some key exceptions). Likewise, despite the rhetoric of “supporting our troops,” neither the VA, the Department of Education, nor the Department of Defense have modernized their data efforts to understand how veterans are doing in the military-to-civilian transition, where they go to school, or which career pathways they chose. We don’t even know the total number of U.S. veterans—federal datasets conflict over this baseline number, despite its importance for benefits and services (see Table 2). In short, we as a nation—in government, academia, and elsewhere—have not sufficiently explored the experiences of recent veterans and their meaning for national public discussions of war, service, and security today.
Secondly, we want to raise one underappreciated source of this often superficial approach to the Post-9/11 wars and its warfighters: a missing or faltering national security strategy for today’s complex, asymmetric conflicts, which may aggravate post-service transition challenges for veterans, including combat stress and moral injury. Moral injury, “the pain resulting from violating one’s moral foundation,” is increasingly seen as “the hallmark of today’s veterans.” While psychologists are still trying to define this idea and its impacts, Sebastian Bae’s informal description is again worth underscoring:
Unlike Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, moral injury does not stem from fear, but from struggling to reconcile a state of mind occurring in war, where moral clarity is impossible, and the morality society expects of us. To survive, we become someone we no longer recognize, accepting the inconceivable as the price of survival. So, guilt suffocates our voices, hiding stories we cannot share—society does not, or will not, understand.
According to B.H. Liddel Hart, strategy is “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.” But as Clausewitz knew well, policy objectives—not the military instruments of force to achieve them—are at the heart of strategic thinking, and this policy-oriented strategy itself is based on a narrative with “moral force” that then explains the need for a given war and its goals. Wars for modern, democracies are hard enough to prosecute: without a coherent strategic narrative with clear, worthwhile goals, the moral ambivalence that war (no matter how righteous) inevitably brings weighs most heavily on the “policy implementers,” the women and men of the armed forces tasked with effecting policymakers’ decisions and plans.
Given the importance of these two, missing, critical pieces of information—veterans’ perspectives, and a strategic narrative to explain these wars and our sacrifice—we have tried to structure our survey questions to fill in at least some of the gaps. In the process, we have gotten a glimpse, not only of the many transition challenges faced by today’s servicemembers, but their ongoing aspirations to contribute to public service beyond the military.
Servicemembers on Post-9/11 Service & Beyond
As seen in Figure 1, most servicemembers we surveyed (82%) viewed their military service positively. They felt their decision to join the armed forces was a good one (88%) (see Figure 2) and one of the top reasons they gave for joining up in the first place was entirely altruistic: a desire to serve [their] country (52%, second only to education benefits at 53%). Two other responses for joining the military (both at 29%), “a history of service in your family” and “the desire to defend your country,” were also selected by a significant number of responses. Echoing existing research, these results in many ways validate the all-volunteer force model of national service (begun in 1973 after Vietnam), confirming that a small minority of the country will willingly take up the defense of the whole nation. Yet, the costs of that willing sacrifice have not been explored carefully enough today.
Servicemembers responded contradictorily to our questions about those costs in service and post-service life, voicing both ambivalence and concern. Though most felt good about service, many, on the other hand, expressed a loss of faith in the military itself, the country’s political leadership, and the need to leave the services and go into very different career pursuits. Respondents said the top three reasons they left service were (see Figure 4): lost faith or trust in military or political leadership (35%); the desire to pursue education and training opportunities outside the military (32%); and family reasons (31%). Respondents also left because they completed their service obligations (28%) or had reached military retirement (26%)—though these normal attrition routes are lower than expected. However, when asked if they regretted leaving the service or wished to return, we heard far more complex answers: nearly half (47%) said they “never” or “rarely” regretted their decision to leave, while about 42 percent said they regretted (“always/ often/ sometimes”) their choice. But then again most (59%) said they wanted (“always/ often /sometimes”) to go back to military service (see Figure 5). These results complicate perspectives on service, revealing at once a strong desire to serve, to get out, and often to go back.
Sense of Purpose, Confidence, and Transition Challenges
While transitioning home from war is never an easy journey, without strategic orientation warfighters are forced to make sense of the fight and their changed identity status or injuries in an environment of isolation—due to the tiny percentage of those who choose national service and a general American ambivalence about these wars. When asked to identify their top transition challenges (see Figure 6), respondents said: navigating VA administration or benefits (57%); getting a job (53%); getting socialized to civilian culture (39%); financial struggles (39%); and skills translation (37%). Most respondents, that is, expressed frustration with the organizations designed to assist in their transition.
Likewise, when asked whether they noticed changes in their confidence levels from service to civilian life, about 41% said they were more confident as servicemembers, 36% said their confidence remained the same, and 24% reported more confidence as civilians. Similar results held when we asked whether respondents were more comfortable in military or civilian life: 35% said they were more comfortable as servicemembers, 33% felt the same, and 32% reported being more comfortable as civilians (see Figures 7 and 8). In short, a sizeable portion of servicemembers—more than a third in each case—felt more confident and comfortable in service rather than civilian life.
Most interesting, when we asked servicemembers if they had difficulty establishing a sense of purpose, value, or meaning in post-service life, nearly half (46%) indicated difficulty, 20% were neutral, and 34% indicated no difficulty (see Figure 9). Along these lines, when we asked whether there were certain roles (i.e., parent, student, employee) that were most challenging after service, many found “Just being a civilian” is challenging, both in “trying to relate to people who haven’t served” and who have “very different frames of reference.” Another respondent told us that “transitioning from a battle-tested” leadership role to “that of a college sophomore was incredibly difficult” because “I felt I had little in common with my peers,” and “going from a highly accountable, controlled environment” to a civilian one was disorienting. It is, of course, hard to share experiences when one is struggling to connect with others and at the same time navigating one’s own changing identity from soldier to civilian.
Theories of Successful Transition: Sharing Stories, Public Engagement & Post-Traumatic Growth
As Nancy Schlossberg finds in her theory of successful transition, strengths or weaknesses in four areas—situation, self, support, and strategy—make all the difference in enhancing or hindering transition. Applied to post-service life, we have seen how sharing experiences from the disorientation of war can strengthen servicemembers’ resources in each of those areas and even help veterans establish a new sense of a unified identity across areas. Much like the outpouring of writing that often follows war, as Nancy Sherman argues in Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers, the very act of developing stories to make meaning out of the disruption of war may, in turn, help with healing war’s moral injuries.
But part of that successful transition for veterans requires addressing a subtle barrier, identified by Marine General Mattis (ret.) in a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, “The Meaning of their Service.” Mattis coins a new phrase—“post-traumatic growth”—to capture the difficult, uneven, but ultimately positive path that defines the reintegration challenge and should frame servicemembers’ process of making “meaning” of their service:
For whatever trauma came with service in tough circumstances, we should take what we learned—take our post-traumatic growth—and, like past generations coming home, bring our sharpened strengths to bear, bring our attitude of gratitude to bear. And, most important, we should deny cynicism a role in our view of the world. We know that in tough times cynicism is just another way to give up, and in the military we consider cynicism or giving up simply as forms of cowardice. No matter how bad any situation, cynicism has no positive impact. Watching the news, you might notice that cynicism and victimhood often seem to go hand-in-hand, but not for veterans. People who have faced no harsh trials seem to fall into that mode, unaware of what it indicates when taking refuge from responsibility for their actions. This is an area where your example can help our society rediscover its courage and its optimism.
There is evidence to back up Mattis’s well-earned instincts. Most servicemembers (82%) said that service left a lasting impression on their lives—undoubtedly good and bad—but most also said that such experiences influenced their post-service success: 71% reported service helped to develop skills and attributes for educational success, for instance (see Figure 10). Taken as a group, servicemembers, historically and today, often outperform their civilian counterparts across traditionally measured areas (i.e., educational and economic attainment, social and political participation).
We want to end with a last sentiment by yet another insightful writer to underscore the public’s role and obligation—a subject too rarely discussed—in contemporary veterans’ successful transition. In his New York Times Op-Ed, “After War: A Failure of the Imagination,” Phil Klay takes issue with the sentiment, often expressed by civilians to warfighters: “I could never imagine what you’ve been through.” Said with all the best intentions, he calls it “the civilian counterpart to the veteran’s ‘You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.’” For Klay this insistence that what warfighters go through is “beyond the limits of imagination” is a barrier, part of the long-held assumption that “war forever separates veterans from the rest of mankind,” that the veteran is different from everyone else “except his fellow soldiers,” a view that leads to this inevitable result: “the veteran in a corner by himself, able to proclaim about war but not discuss it, and the civilian shut out from a conversation about one of the most morally fraught activities our nation engages in — war.”
In addition to making dialogue difficult, that approach has several hidden costs. It deepens isolation and “traps” veterans into “fetishizing trauma as incommunicable”, which then leaves survivors “unable to feel truly known by their nonmilitary friends and family.” It encourages civilians to be “excused or excluded from discussion of war,” resulting in a naive and superficial view of war and service. It prevents people from seeing that “veterans are no more or less trustworthy than any other group of fallible human beings,” nor an “unassailable authority on the experience of war,” a premise which ends the conversation before it can even begin. Yet, “in a democracy, no one, not even a veteran, should have the last word.” In short, for Klay:
Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels. If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.
Part of doing better requires a role for an engaged public, an audience willing to be “both receptive and critical,” a public dialogue that can help veterans work toward personal and collective storytelling about their experiences in and after war. The process of making sense of these wars is a public burden shared broadly, not the least because in a democracy the decision to go to war must be a shared one. Likewise, without careful, data-driven study, efforts to understand how servicemembers feel about these issues at many levels—in service, transition to civilian life, post-service jobs, education, family dynamics, wellness—we cannot understand how veterans are really doing or whether we as a nation have made good on servicemembers’ post-service welfare, necessary for renewing each generation’s commitment to serve. Obviously, colleges and universities—at their best—present opportunities for veterans to do just that. But there must be a larger role for the American public in this process: it’s time for us to move past “thank you for your service” and, instead, become actively engaged with veterans’ experiences, as listeners and interlocutors. Doing so, in our view, is a public obligation and a matter of public citizenship.
What’s more, it is a solution to the missing elements in today’s national discourse—veterans’ perspectives, and a strategic narrative to explain these wars and our sacrifice. Without that collective obligation, our policy debates over national and international security will remain impoverished, and we will neither understand the many transition challenges faced by today’s servicemembers, nor maximize their—and our own—ongoing aspirations to contribute to the life of the nation.
Corri Zoli is the Director of Research and an Assistant Research Professor at Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security & Counterterrorism. Daniel Fay is an Assistant Professor of Public Management at Mississippi State University. Rosalinda Maury is the Director of Survey Research at Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans & Military Families.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army