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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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Another veteran, my friend and colleague Dave Danelo, the author of Blood Stripes, invokes the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces in his own forthcoming treatment of returning veterans, The Return: The Warrior Life After Combat (Black Irish Books, fall 2014). Campbell held that “universal myths,” the quintessential example of which is The Odyssey, represent a quest for meaning, maturity, and mastery that is repeated by human beings in infinite forms.

The hero makes a journey marked by departure, adventure, and return. For Danelo, the universal myth also describes the veteran’s quest: “lifting ourselves up, finding new experiences, drawing on the old soul’s ancient wisdom, and making ourselves more useful to our families, communities,” and country.

Gen. Mattis, Marlantes, and Danelo all treat the veteran as an object of admiration and respect, not a victim. But as Mattis observes, the veteran-as-victim narrative exerts a profoundly powerful influence over the American people. It can be seen in news stories that paint veterans as overrepresented in rates of suicide, drug abuse, homelessness, and incarceration.

Such sensationalist stories inevitably portray an “epidemic” of some sort among veterans, such as the commission of murder. The implication is that veterans have been traumatized by their combat experience and are ticking time bombs who inevitably will commit mayhem against themselves or civilian society. 

A particularly egregious example of this sort of journalism is a February 2013 Washington Post story on the “epidemic” of suicide among veterans, presumably resulting from the trauma of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. It featured a photo of a young, healthy Navy SEAL who did indeed commit suicide, though in reality the story makes clear that most of the veterans who commit suicide are over 50 with no connection to either of our recent wars.

Such stories are fundamentally flawed. Do some veterans commit suicide? Are some others afflicted by drug use, homelessness, and incarceration? Of course, but it is always necessary to compare veterans with nonveterans by age cohort, something that sensationalist reporting based on the veteran-as-victim angle habitually fails to do. When such comparisons are made, the claim that veterans are uniquely likely to lead dysfunctional lives falls apart. 

But the very number of such stories confirms Gen. Mattis’s contention that the veteran-as-victim narrative is strongly embedded in the American psyche and seems to be a constant feature of our view of veterans. However, as the old adage has it, “It’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so!” But in order to correct the narrative, it is important to understand its origin. 

"The country doesn’t know it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.” 

So testified John Kerry, before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 22, 1971.

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.

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