Beyond the ‘Broken Veteran’: A History of America’s Relationship With Its Ex-Soldiers
January opened with President Donald Trump’s directive to the various Secretaries of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security to formulate a “Joint Action Plan” for supporting veterans in their transition to civilianhood by expanding suicide prevention resources. January ended with the viral video of a California schoolteacher lambasting present, past, and future veterans as the “freakin’ lowest of the low” — society’s permanent failures — to a classroom of underage students. Equating military recruiters to pimps, the teacher excoriated the idea that anything positive could be linked with the military.
A continent apart in more than tone, the president’s executive order and the teacher’s rant nonetheless share an underlying premise: Veterans are a uniquely afflicted group. Despite a wealth of contrary evidence and both military and civilian observers urging a change in perspective, the broken veteran narrative has had an astonishing resilience.
America does have a “veteran problem,” but perhaps not the one we’ve concentrated our popular attention on. Nor is today’s version unique to the 21st century. Throughout U.S. history, war generations have emphasized either the challenge veterans can pose to social stability, or the challenge commercial society can pose to the disabled veteran. Legislative solutions have been framed accordingly: The particular tone of veteran legislation has historically emphasized the disadvantages, if not “brokenness,” of veterans.
In parallel, veterans have developed their own unique sense of identity. “Veteranness” has mutated from a personality trait before the Civil War to a comprehensive sense of self with its own marketing brand in the post-9/11 All Volunteer Force age.
The broken veteran narrative, unintentionally fueled by the tone of veteran legislation, certainly contributes to the real difficulties today’s veterans face in transitioning into civilian life. The unexplored historical relationship between public perception, legislation, and veteran identity suggests that reframing veteran legislation and strengthening civilian identity may be the Joint Action Plan today’s veterans need to thrive after their service.
In 1944, sociologist Willard Waller was anticipating the re-civilianizing of the nearly 16 million American servicemen of World War II, many of whom would soon be in university classrooms like his at Columbia.
As long as America had had veterans, Waller pointed out in “The Veteran Comes Back,” it has had had some type of “veteran problem.” That stood to some reason:
Our kind of democratic society is probably worse fitted than any other for handling veterans. An autocracy, caring nothing for its human materials, can use up a man and throw him away. A socialistic society that takes from each according to his abilities and gives to each according to his needs can use up a man and then care for him the rest of his life. But a democracy, a competitive democracy like ours, that cares about human values but expects every man to look out for himself, uses up a man and returns him to the competitive process, then belatedly recognizes the injustice of his procedure and makes lavish gestures of atonement in his direction.
The sociologist wasn’t praising nondemocratic forms of rule. He was highlighting how the principles around which the experiment of American democracy was organized — liberty and equality, personal responsibility, private property, and limited government — exist in some legitimate tension with how such a government ought properly to acknowledge and repay individuals who have defended it.
Waller believed the real questions about veterans resuming their civilian way of life were bound up with the psychology of the soldier. Returning the soldier to civilian life in the modern world, he argued, had to start with understanding the veteran’s attitudes against the backdrop of industrial warfare, mass conscription, and a cog-in-the-machine mentality. “We must learn what it is … to be, for a time, expendable, and then to be expendable no more.” What happens, he wondered, when the “expendable one” returns from facing death?
George Washington had puzzled over a similar difficulty. The commander of the Continental Army felt intuitively that veterans needed to maintain a sense of self after military service. In his Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States, Washington recommended that veterans funnel their energies as soon as possible into active pursuits, and “prove themselves not less virtuous and useful as Citizens, than they [were] persevering and victorious as soldiers.”
Washington’s insight was that soldiers cannot simply remain ex-soldiers once their period of service is fulfilled. He knew that soldiers “walk the weird wall at the edge of civilization,” as Reed Robert Bonnadona puts it: The people who have historically been the staunchest defenders of their societies have also sometimes posed the greatest threat to it. From this juxtaposition Washington formed his idea that the citizen-turned-soldier could — and must — turn back into the citizen again.
For Washington, ex-soldiers’ veteran status was only one (temporary) part of their American identity. This was a crucial plank of his argument that the new nation could have a professional army without endangering the liberties of citizens. Alexis de Tocqueville gave the more explicit explanation several decades later, when he showed why the American soldier displays “a faithful image of the nation.” Most democratic citizens would rather reserve their passions and ambitions for civilian life than for martial grandeur, he wrote, because they think of military service as at most a passing obligation, not an identity. “They bow to their military duties, but their souls remain attached to the interests and desires they were filled with in civil life.”
In the era of Washington and Tocqueville, American veterans were not an alien faction different from society at large. Since then, however, the end of each subsequent conflict has spurred the public to think of ex-soldiers as a discrete group with certain special claims on society’s gratitude. The War of 1812 cemented the outcome of the Revolution and gave Americans a renewed sense of their independence. The public’s attention turned to appreciate the role of the Continental Army. The aging of the surviving soldiers and some public romanticizing of their persons as archetypes of national character, led to a public movement in favor of pensions for the neglected “suffering soldier.” The “suffering soldier” became such a powerful public trope that even though the Senate invoked 40 years of accepted republican principle about pension establishments being aristocratic and corruption-prone, President James Monroe signed the Revolutionary War Pension Act in 1818. The legislation fused the idea of a service pension to the concept of public assistance for the aged poor, laying the groundwork for how the system of American military service-related benefits would evolve.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the changing face of industrialized society, technologies of war, and beliefs about the role of government have expanded each generation’s understanding of its debt to soldiers. The early practice of granting only disability pensions to war veterans grew to include professional or vocational training after World War I, to college tuition assistance and low-interest home loans after World War II. Finally, these benefits were expanded to all who have served in uniform, whether during war or peacetime. At the same time, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs expanded the paradigm of government’s obligations to all citizens. Nevertheless, today, there are those who would extend the above-mentioned benefits even to soldiers with an “Other Than Honorable” discharge — reflecting how much veteran identity has come to be wedded to a legal status premised on the perceived cost of service. The pension/benefits narrative has corralled anyone who has worn a uniform into a unique category of society in the eyes of the public.
The way veterans have responded to their evolving status has both reflected and informed national attitudes. Largely because of the sheer numbers involved in the Civil War and, especially, in World War I, soldiers who had survived these massive conflicts, protracted campaigns, and deadlier weapons began to think of themselves more narrowly — as survivors of epic experiences who would forever have more in common with those who had seen such killing fields than with civilians who had not. John A. Casey charts this transformation in “New Men,” showing that whereas former soldiers and civilians alike once viewed military service more as an episode in a man’s life and a set of acquired skills that all could appreciate, in the post-bellum era both groups began to view service as a transformative experience that produced a new identity, one civilians couldn’t interpret.
Historians and military scholars debate exactly how different the Civil War was from prior conflicts. Casey argues that “it is the changed rhythm of war more than anything that marks it as different.” While more traditional set-piece battles marked the early campaigns of the war, the last two years witnessed nearly continuous fighting. Soldiers had no time to conceptualize what they had lived through or to recuperate. This “changed them in ways they never completely understood. All that was certain was they could not fully return to their antebellum sense of identity … They had been baptized by war and born again as new men.”
For Casey, the Civil War was when veterans and civilians changed their conception of war from an event to a liminal experience transforming the warfighter’s consciousness, analogous to religious conversion. It was Civil War veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes who likened combat to being “touched by fire,” like the Apostles. The postbellum trail of fiction and nonfiction writings authored by veterans illustrate this mindset. William Tecumseh Sherman’s “Memoirs,” Sam Watkins’s “Company Aytch,” and Ambrose Bierce’s stories all evince a struggle to find coherence in the traumatic events the authors experienced, a struggle to show the “real” war, and a sense of the inadequacy of their portrayal to make the uninitiated civilian reader “get it.”
Civil War veterans such John William De Forest (“Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty”), and Winslow Homer (“The Empty Sleeve at Newport”) also showed this literary and artistic consciousness at work. Lanier’s protagonist, Confederate veteran Phil Sterling, is a number rather than a name, his identity shattered by incarceration in a prisoner-of-war camp. Once released, the love of friends and family enables Sterling to recover his name and identity, but his combat experiences prevent him from feeling “at home.” Spectators of the same war, but not participants in it, Sterling’s loved ones cannot truly understand him.
“War literature” as a unique field of academic study is generally considered to have originated in the wake of the Civil War, Casey writes. These ex-soldiers presented wartime memories as something they alone could discuss, forging the path for how the Ernest Hemingways and other, more familiar “Lost Generation” soldier-poets of World War I wrote about war and the fighting man, establishing a now-defined genre.
Buttressing such artistic expressions, robust veterans’ associations, helped cement a national concept of “the veteran.” The Grand Army of the Republic provided a blueprint for the multiplicity of veterans associations, like the American Legion, that emerged after World War I in America and then in nearly every other country that had participated in the Great War. The visible, concrete image of the invalid veteran sans leg or arm played a significant role in transforming the concept of veteran into an enduring identity. Especially in France and America, these national associations helped solidify the public concept of the veteran as having unique needs necessitating specialized care and deserving of government support.
Cultural elements and political events played a tangible role here. Andrew J. Huebner reminds us in “The Warrior Image” that war correspondents and photography, while relevant from the Mexican War to the Civil War, swelled during WWI, though much of the imagery was censored from the public view until after the Armistice. The rise of newspaper publishing put images and accounts of struggling veterans in anybody’s hand. Meanwhile, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars held public rallies advocating for veterans’ benefits and encouraged the attenuate Bonus March, making the political presence of veterans impossible to ignore. Internationally, the Conférence Internationale des Associations de Mutilés et Anciens Combattants aimed to unite all veterans and “war invalids” of the Great War, including from former enemy countries Germany, Austria, and Bulgaria. In 1922, it boasted over 10 million members. And while many states struggled to respond to their invalid veterans, they often supplied them with free or discounted railway travel, enabling them to attend far-flung veteran rallies and reunions. The image of the permanently changed veteran was literally on the move.
It was this newer understanding of the veteran as a psychological identity, earned in the crucible of war, that Waller had in mind in 1944 when he asked what happens when “the expendable one returns.” Like Washington, Waller thought a transition back into the civilian community was both possible and essential, but he believed that post-service education would be key. Education, he argued, would give the soldier the mental tools with which to make sense of his warfighting experience juxtaposed against his perception of the civilian’s perspective.
Although Waller didn’t live to witness the effects of the 1944 GI Bill — the “Serviceman’s Readjustment Act” — the bill supported Waller’s theory and is widely considered to be one of the most successful pieces of legislation in American history (so successful that Great Society programs were patterned off it). Through its education and vocational training assistance and small business loans, the GI Bill helped millions of ex-soldiers bridge their war experience back to the civilian sector, to the net enrichment of their families and civil society. The absence of a public discussion of a postwar “veteran problem,” in comparison to the post-World War I and Civil War eras, reflects the success of the legislation.
In the decades since World War II, society has moved well past Washington and Waller’s viewpoints about post-service identity. Thanks to the cultural conflicts of the Vietnam era, the rise of identity politics, the medicalization of behavior, and the valorization of victimhood, in the era of the professionalized All-Volunteer Force, veterans are viewed as a “tribe apart.” Their increasingly medicalized image is linked to the relatively new field of neuropsychiatry. After Vietnam, Hollywood helped promulgate a perception of veterans as “walking time bombs.” This view was reinforced by front-page stories in the New York Times proclaiming veterans to be “psychiatric casualties of war.”
In the late 1970s and 1980s, an extreme version of this diagnosis was crowned with scientific gravitas when a group of activist-psychiatrists led by the prominent Robert Jay Lifton testified that the veteran “returns as a tainted intruder … likely to seek continuing outlets for a pattern of violence to which they have become habituated.” Popular culture painted soldiers as “baby killers.” Within a generation, ex-soldiers in the public consciousness went from needing education to needing to be “rehumaniz[ed],” as Lifton put it.
Since 9/11, society has largely softened that extreme characterization of veterans. Instead of killers or victims, veterans are seen as victims, heroes, or victim-heroes. But that narrative stands in its own need of rehumanization — the modern-day perception of veterans needs to be brought down from mythologized heroes on a pedestal to the real world of public servants, adventure seekers, and bill payers who volunteer for military service. And yet, despite a fair amount of literature supporting this point, the narrative does not change much.
One reason for this is clear, and has to do with the historical originals of the concept of veteran identity. Legislation for veterans has traditionally been premised on a pension/benefits model that assumed that war — and now that any military service — adversely costs the soldier. Today’s identity-driven politics is particularly conducive to this narrative, as many in society seek to identify rights and bring about public policy outcomes specific to discrete, often historically underrepresented groups. And U.S. soldiers certainly qualify: Less than one percent of a nation’s population volunteers for active duty service. American soldiers become even intellectually underrepresented when the majority of their peers don’t know anything about them.
A second reason for the continued valorization of veterans follows from this last: Americans may have lost the robust sense of citizenship that previous generations relied on to make civilian life vibrant enough for veterans to embrace it. In the All-Volunteer Force era, perhaps it’s the civilian majority with its loose sense of civic connectedness that makes it difficult for veterans to subsume a veteran identity within the generalized civilian one. When Washington argued for former soldiers to think of themselves as fully civilian-citizens with a set of acquired military skills, many Americans felt a sense of patriotism and civic identity that shaped the calendar of their yearly activities. Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham may have over-eulogized this civic engagement in “Stump Speaking” and “County Election;” nevertheless, that strong sense seems to have weakened considerably since the 19th century. Today’s America no longer shares that identity, as suggested by factors from low voter turnout, “Man on the Street”-style public confessions of civic and historical ignorance, disinterest in civic education, to the “bowling alone” culture decried by Harvard’s Robert Putnam. In Putnam’s view, the comparably steep membership losses since the 1960s among trade unions, professional associations, chapter-based voluntary membership federations, and community groups documents “the erosion of America’s social connectedness and community involvement.” This is to say nothing of the 2016 election, whose after-action report notes the role that a hollowed-out sense of citizenship thanks to globalization played in the electoral returns.
To that first generation of Americans, citizenship wasn’t a passive label, but an active way of life. Jefferson relayed the sense of this understanding in his comment that citizenship is composed of the civic knowledge of rights, duties, and how to judge individuals worthy of public office; the practice of sound civic habits; and importantly, an informed attachment to the American regime and principles of the Constitution.
America’s political class today doesn’t exactly articulate this. As that California teacher’s rant shows, angry citizens are present in all layers of society. But we have little corresponding understanding of a robust citizenship animated by an informed attachment to American laws, principles and institutions, and the need for each generation to perpetuate them. It may not be possible — or preferable given the dynamics of today’s professional All-Volunteer Force — to return entirely to Washington’s designation of the veteran as simply the citizen. But it is both possible and pressing to return to that robust sense of citizenship that enabled citizens to be soldiers, and soldiers citizens.
Rebecca Burgess manages the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on veterans and their role in civil society and politics. She is the author of “Second Service: Military Veterans and Public Office.”