Heroes and Villains: Military Veterans and Civil Society, Part 1
Since the beginning of armies and organized warfare, that is, since the start of human society, soldiers and former soldiers have been feared and revered, deified, and despised in roughly equal measure. The extremes of opinion have often been unjustified, if not entirely incomprehensible. Soldiers and military veterans have been associated with some of humanity’s highest ideals and aspirations, and inescapably with scenes and acts of atavism and barbarity. They have played a unique role in the saga of nations, culture, and civilization.[i] Recent events have raised the question of the veteran’s role in civil society. There is an historic gap, it would seem, between the potential of veterans to contribute to society and the success with which they realize and fulfill this role.
The veteran story is very old. One of the seminal works of western literature, the Odyssey, is concerned with the life of a veteran. Another veteran of Troy who returns home to his wife and a different reception from that experienced by Odysseus is his commander Agamemnon! The legend of Robin Hood is based partly on the medieval soldiers who took to the woods and turned outlaw. Bandit veterans became a scourge during the early modern period. In later years veterans became the object of sentimental social concern, perhaps culminating in the works of Rudyard Kipling and his many appeals for veterans’ relief and respect. Veterans again become centers of attention after World War I and the “lost generation,” some of whom formed the nuclei of the fascist organizations that troubled the peace of Europe and the world for decades, and of which remnants survive to this day. The dysfunctional, unassimilated veteran was a subject of both fear and solicitude in America after the Vietnam War. Consideration of the veteran has not been limited to the west. The unemployed Samurai is a stock figure of much Japanese literature. The prestige of American soldiers and vets rose in the latter years of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, but veterans have also been linked with higher rates of mental illness and suicide in recent years.[ii] Finally, revelations about the disproportionate number of veterans among those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 raised questions about the nature of military and veteran culture. The dangerous, outlaw veteran has not left us, it would seem. Since the attack, greater attention has been focused on the appeal for veterans of certain extremist groups, and it has been learned that these groups often actively recruit service members and veterans. Veterans have skills that might be useful to an extremist organization, not in weaponry or combat skills only, but in organizing, leadership, and communications. Because of their service, veterans often possess what social scientists term charisma, a quality of leadership often based on unusual experiences. Further, given the continued prestige of the armed forces in America, the presence of numbers of veterans in the ranks of an organization may serve to give it an aura of legitimacy that it would not otherwise have and that it may not deserve.
The relationship of the veteran to her military experience may be complex. Leaving the service is often experienced as liberating and humanizing. No longer is one subject to discipline and command. The military dictates where a person lives, the work he does, and what he wears; every moment of the servicemember’s day may be subject to a rigid schedule and set procedures. At any moment, someone of superior rank can make demands that may seem unreasonable or overbearing. Service members often live in harsh, comfortless, dangerous conditions. They may experience painful and debilitating mental and physical wounds, and the wounding and death of friends. Given all of this, it may be surprising that veterans often experience nostalgia for their service. It is sometimes their departed youth that they miss, but it is often much more than that. They may long for the sense of purpose and order, the admiring looks a person in the unform of his country often receives, and perhaps especially the experience of comradeship. For many, at least in retrospect, military service is the most significant period in their lives. The absence left by the termination of military service may be hard to fill, and some veterans spend their lives searching for a substitute. Veterans’ search for meaning may make them vulnerable to the appeals of false gods and corrupt ideologies, or it may empower them to serve. Their charisma may be meretricious, but if united with strength and probity it can be a great force for good. The adaptability, resiliency, and leadership skills that veterans may acquire in their service can be useful in bringing about positive change.
[i] Reed Robert Bonadonna, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017).
[ii] 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed online 31 March 20.