When we talk about our debt to the military this year on Memorial Day, we may experience a queasy feeling that we have broken faith with those who serve in the armed forces.
Memorial Day this year is framed inevitably by the scandal at the VA. But failure at the VA is not the only way we have let down our veterans. Instead of honoring their service, we have increasingly come to regard veterans as mentally unstable or as victims.
An antidote to this very modern mentality can be found in Mackubin Owens’ excellent Weekly Standard article headlined “Life after Wartime,” which is aimed at “combating the veteran-as-victim narrative.”
The phenomenon of seeing veterans as victims, Owens writes, goes back to the Vietnam War. Marine general James Mattis spoke of this tendency in an address to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan:
“There is no room for military people, including our veterans, to see themselves as victims even if so many of our countrymen are prone to relish that role,” he continued. “While victimhood in America is exalted, I don’t think our veterans should join those ranks.”
One of Gen. Mattis’s targets is a major component of the veteran-as-victim narrative: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he calls a “disease orientation” toward combat stress. As Thucydides observed, war “proves a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.” Those who have experienced it are never the same as they were before. One who has seen a comrade die or who has looked into the eyes of an enemy whom he is about to kill lest his enemy kill him is forever transformed. But the disease orientation underlying PTSD paints the combat veteran as one who is broken and cannot be repaired, who is a threat to society and needs to be medicated, and who might explode in violence at any time.
General Mattis, it should be noted does not deny the existence of PTSD. But he prefers to talk of PTG—post traumatic growth, or the possibility of becoming a better person as a result of one’s experiences, some of which are unimaginably traumatic, in the military. This very un-modern notion is likely offensive to many.
I wonder if our need to see veterans as victims comes from our knowledge that they have been tested in ways that we can scarcely imagine. We are not sure we could do what they have done. So we need to read about how damaged they are and justify our own refusal to share the burdens of war.
The image of the veteran as victim had its genesis in the anti-Vietnam war left of the 1960s and ’70s. According to this image, the Vietnam war was uniquely brutal and unjust, and it brutalized those who fought it. At first the antiwar left vilified veterans as war criminals and baby-killers. But this approach evolved into the idea that the Vietnam veteran was a victim: He was victimized first by his country, which disproportionately sent the poor off to fight an unjust war. Then he was victimized by a military that dehumanized him and turned him into a killer, one who was dangerous to society because he could lash out at any time.
So our feelings about our veterans are tied up in our judgments of our society as a whole. If you think that this is a noble country, you instinctively honor those who have fought for her. You see them as deserving of respect, not crazed people permanently ruined in the service of an unjust system.
By the way, here is not how to honor a soldier or sailor. How shallow can anyone be?