French historian Antoine Prost has observed in his In The Wake of War that when there is “one word [that] has no equivalent in another language, it generally suggests that we confront one of the particularities of a given society.” Such a word, he claims, is the English-American word “veteran.”
To be a former soldier is to have belonged to one of the most ancient of all professions of the human race—to be a defender of people and places and also a wager of war. To be a veteran, however, is to participate in a distinctly modern concept, one that has its theoretical roots in Enlightenment ideas and the birth of the nation-state, but with its practical articulation in the founding and later development of the United States of America. Even France, the nation that in its birth-throes arguably originated conscripted mass mobilization with the levée en masse, and thus built its new national identity with hundreds of thousands of former soldiers, does not understand itself to have “veterans.” Writing well after two other massive conscriptions of French society undertaken in the fighting of two world wars, Prost remarked in 1992 that, linguistically speaking, the French still only had “anciens combattants.” That linguistic difference, he argued, had to be taken seriously as indicative of an entirely separate notion that had arisen in America and been dubbed “the veteran.”
A Political Force
The concept of the veteran as we’ve come to experience it today appears to be a thoroughly American experiment, but one that has, remarkably, gone largely if not entirely unnoticed. This is despite America having participated in numerous wars, despite the generational reverence still felt decades later for the “Greatest Generation,” and despite what Admiral Mike Mullen once termed in the midst of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as “a sea of good will” among the American public toward Post-9/11 veterans.
We ought not to be so oblivious to this history, and to its richness in showcasing the centrality of military veterans to the development of the American nation, even to political and constitutional ideas.
The veteran is, first and foremost, an experiment in civil-military relations and egalitarian democratic society. But veterans—and the questions that arise both from reincorporating ex-soldiers into civil society, and from wrestling with who cares (and to what extent) for their wounds and needs—have without doubt influenced and shaped American government, along with its public and private institutions, society, and culture. For one, the government lobbyist, today so central—and so reviled—a figure to the American legislative system, was invented, perfected, and perpetuated, by military veterans.
The no-longer existent Grand Army of the Republic (the GAR), formed from out the ashes of the Civil War, was the first national veterans’ organization. It made an indelible mark on American political life through its veteran pension advocacy, not to mention its instrumental role in electing five Civil War veterans and GAR members to the presidency—Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley, in addition to Civil War veteran (but non-GAR member) Chester Arthur. In the definitive work on the subject, Veterans in Politics: The Story of the GAR, Mary Dearing reveals the complex and compelling story. Companionship, solidarity, and charity were certainly GAR ends, as the organization would claim in recounting its origin story, but so was politics. The struggle among Radicals, conservative Republicans, and Democrats over the Reconstruction issue had formed the background for the founding of the Grand Army, while the ambitions of several Illinois politicians (General John A. Logan and Governor Richard Oglesby in particular) ushered it into existence. By keeping in view a very tangible legislative purpose—cash benefits for veterans—over several decades, GAR maintained its considerable political presence until President Benjamin Harrison signed a generous 1890 pension law.
That pension law has expanded after every war since, now including veterans who had never even experienced war. But it also became the inspiration and blueprint both for more far-reaching programs, including Social Security under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Medicare under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Editors at the New Republic had early grasped the opportunities inherent in veterans’ welfare, and they urged liberals to embrace it for ideological as well as practical political reasons. As they argued in “The Progressive and the Veteran”:
Progressives may ignore…the question of whether men who have served their country in uniform are entitled to special economic consideration in the name of patriotism. They cannot afford to ignore the fact that the fate of a generation is at stake and that the settling-up of a wide and socially constructive system of benefits is of the deepest significance to the future of the democratic philosophy.
Today, it hardly needs pointing out, the federal government is assumed to hold responsibility for the social and economic security of all citizens. This is why the fights over veteran-related legislation, and particularly in regards to the Department of Veteran Affairs, in fact often have very little to do with actual considerations about the positive welfare of the nation’s veterans: They are inevitably now proxy fights about the role of government in providing for the needs of its citizens at the individual level.
The story of the American veteran, it turns out, is a whole-of-America story, even while it might be hidden.
From Citizen-Soldiers to Soldier-Citizens
As then-Commander in Chief of the Continental Army George Washington knew, it is not so difficult to turn citizens into soldiers. Turning those soldiers back into citizens is the infinitely more difficult task. As Reed Robert Bonadonna puts it, soldiers “walk the weird wall at the edge of civilization.” Soldiers are bred out of and for violence, but in order to have and ensure peace. When soldiers are trained and deployed on the battlefield to close with and destroy an enemy, they are the physical executors of government power. They are uniquely creatures of politics: The state calls their identity as soldiers into being and then dismisses them, framing that identity with so many legislative words and regulations. Their official activity is the rawest of all political activities, if we embrace Clausewitz’s dictum about war being “the continuation of politics through other means.” Soldiers are thus bred to a sense of official, if not great, purpose. What happens when such purpose disappears from their day-to-day lives? Can former soldiers ever truly be civilians again? And content to be so?
For democracies, this challenge is even more compounded: If military service is not simply the ultimate expression of civic virtue but is also the highest duty of citizenship, are veterans in fact superior citizens? What are they rightly owed by their country, and what can they rightly claim from their fellow citizens? How considerations of freedom and equality factor into this equation is not easily answered, especially within the context of limited government. (I have written previously for Law & Liberty on these questions.)
Washington and his generation appear to have understood that to answer these questions, it would always be insufficient to contextualize former soldiers within the framework of their past, and of past wars. Like the Ancients, Washington understood that making soldiers involves the cultivation of an Achillean thumos, or spiritedness, which enables them to do what they need to do in the face of death. Anticipating 20th-century sociologist Willard Waller, Washington wrestled with the puzzle of how to understand thumos and how to deploy it toward civic ends after and outside a time of war. Plato, Washington, Homer, and Waller, each understood spiritedness to be a neutral force, but one that is always on the lookout, as it were, for a cause to serve.
And thus we find George Washington presciently advising his veterans, in his 1783 Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States, of the tense psychological dynamics they will face once separated from military service. He urges them to view their service as one rung of experience on the ladder of their personal identity, and so to direct their energies into industrial, commercial, and agrarian pursuits, so as to “prove themselves not less virtuous and useful as Citizens, than they [were] persevering and victorious as soldiers.”
Washington felt intuitively that veterans needed to maintain a sense of self after military service, and that ex-soldiers’ veteran status ought to be only one (temporary) part of their American identity.
Reflecting the insight that thumos is a force deployable for positive and negative ends, the first decades of the United States show how many veterans did indeed build up America through western land settlement, agrarian cultivation, entrepreneurship, and continued public service. The Virginia Military District after the American Revolution, so designated in order to exchange land for payment to Virginia’s Revolutionary War veterans, is one concrete example of this—populated with veterans, this territory essentially became the state of Ohio. Those decades also show how veteran thumos could be destructive of civil society—witness, for instance, Shays’ Rebellion. As Dixon Wecter has noted in When Johnny Comes Marching Home, a combination of soldierly impatience, civil fickleness, and murky economic problems complicated the Continentals’ return to civilian life, in a pattern repeated after every major armed conflict involving American forces since.
After Shays’ Rebellion, Henry Knox wrote Washington that the insurrection had failed chiefly because officers of the late army had joined to quell it on the strength of their Society of Cincinnati ties. Named in honor of the Roman Cincinnatus, the military society was meant to bridge the space between military camp and veteran life for the officer corps, who pledged to follow their namesake’s example “by returning to their citizenship.” A hereditary society, the Cincinnati’s ostensible purpose was the perpetuation of friendships made during the war. With George Washington among its first presiding officers, the Cincinnati was a success immediately though controversial soon afterwards, due to its suspicious marks of aristocracy and the unpopularity of the officers’ bonus in the years following the war. But in quelling Shays’ Rebellion, the (former) officers’ actions vindicated Washington’s belief in the feasibility of citizen-soldiers turned citizen-veterans. And in fighting and wining a second war against the British soon afterward, Americans, it seems, accepted this also. Their soldiers were indeed their fellow citizens—people whom they knew. The veterans in their midst were their family members, their tradesmen, their townspeople, and their farmers. They were not the social and moral dregs of society, nor suspicious actors of the state, but were a true cross-section of American democratic society.
“The Faithful Image of the Nation”
In his essay “Similes,” Seth Benardete contends that it is war, not peace, that needs similes for us to understand it, because “peace is what everyone knows” while “war cannot explain itself.” Similarly, he wonders whether the heroes (who fought and fell before the walls of Troy in Homer’s Iliad) have “counterparts” that can be found in our world; or, he asks, “must peace be distorted to fit them?”
Very few Americans today would think of the Constitutional Convention and the eventual ratification of the US Constitution as a hashing out of Benardete’s (or Homer’s) question—which is in essence a question about the social and political roles or place of the military veteran. And yet the Constitution is very careful to provide no pathway for military service, or martial excellence, to become a right to political power via political office. The president is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces by virtue of having been elected to the executive office, for instance, and not because of any military affiliation; no elected office in America requires prior—or any—military experience. Not even at the unexpected death of the president do any military generals step in. Peace, the American Founding generation seems to be saying, does not, indeed must not, be distorted to fit its military guardians, whether that guardianship is present or was in the past.
To return to General George Washington’s thinking in particular, the important thing in this regard seems to be a focus on the democratic souls and character of those who must fight for the democratic nation. As demonstrated in his Farewell Orders, the one-time commander of the Continental Army felt intuitively that veterans needed to maintain a sense of self after military service, and that ex-soldiers’ veteran status ought therefore to be only one (temporary) part of their American identity. What came before military service in terms of the citizen’s identity was to prevail: Soldiers cannot simply remain ex-soldiers once their period of service is fulfilled.
This was a crucial plank of Washington’s 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 be naturally habituated to reserve their passions and ambitions rather 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 America, neither peace nor civil society need to be distorted to fit the veteran. It is the free and equal citizen who prevails always in importance—but neither does that free and equal citizen fear to be spirited, full of thumos, in the defense of his rights. Perhaps it is this delicate marriage of spiritedness and restraint that makes the concept of the veteran such an American experiment.