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Life After Wartime

Combating the veteran-as-victim narrative

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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What does America owe its veterans? Perhaps the best answer to this question I have ever seen came from a young woman named Julie Ponzi—wise beyond her years—in response to a review I had written of Karl Marlantes’s magnificent Vietnam war novel, Matterhorn. She observed that by providing a real understanding of war and its sacrifices, memoirs and novels such as Matterhorn make it possible for “our fighting men to finally get some genuine gratitude. Not sympathy or pedestals; but real gratitude. .  .  . Every civilian should understand that the veteran has done nothing less, and also nothing more, than what is sometimes required to maintain liberty.” 


Luke Sharrett /GettyImages

Neither sympathy nor pedestals, but gratitude: How breathtakingly simple! Alas, too many Americans see veterans as victims, a phenomenon that goes back to Vietnam. But as the highly regarded and greatly admired retired Marine general James Mattis argued in a recent speech to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those Americans are wrong. 

“You’ve been told that you’re broken,” said Mattis during the Q&A portion of his April 23 speech at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco, “that you’re damaged goods and should be labeled victims of two unjust and poorly executed wars. I don’t buy it. The truth, instead, is that you are the only folks with the skills, determination, and values to ensure American dominance in this chaotic world. 

“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. 

While not denying the existence of PTSD, Gen. Mattis offers an alternative, which he calls --“post-traumatic growth.” ------Post-traumatic growth (PTG) has echoes of Nietzsche’s aphorism from Twilight of the Idols: “From life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger.” In Mattis’s view, PTG describes the fact that most veterans return from war with the potential to be stronger than before. The PTG orientation holds that what the returning veteran needs are time and support in order to actualize that potential for growth.

Karl Marlantes makes a similar argument in What It Is Like to Go to War, his nonfiction follow-up to Matterhorn. Marlantes calls war “the temple of Mars,” a “sacred space” that possesses a mystical quality for those who fight it. A major thrust of Marlantes’s argument is that modern liberal society doesn’t recognize the psychological split that war engenders in those who fight it. Killing is what soldiers do for society. But the split it creates in the soldier’s psyche is a spiritual weight that the combat veteran will carry for the rest of his life. In the HBO series The Pacific, the father of future Marine Eugene Sledge, a genteel Southern physician who served in World War I, tells his son that “the worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War was not that their flesh had been torn, but that their souls had been torn out.”

Marlantes captures the source of this spiritual burden for the soldiers of a liberal society, writing, “War is the antithesis of the most fundamental rule of moral conduct. .  .  . To survive psychologically in the proximity of Mars, one has to come to terms with stepping outside of conventional moral conduct. This means coming to terms with guilt over killing and maiming other people.” But what one does or witnesses in war is properly seen as a source of strength, not victimhood.

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