The Quiet Invisible

Here is a thing about unpopular wars: Their survivors are unpopular too.

I speak not of the civilians caught up in war, those for whom public sympathies pour out amply at every opportunity, which is not to say that civilians caught up in wars don’t deserve sympathy, don’t deserve righteous anger, don’t deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

But it is to say that in the flood to paint war as evil, and the people who wage it as evil, something is forgotten: The humanity of people who serve in the military.

After people came back from Vietnam, they were spat upon, hounded, and abused by members of the public. They were forced into retreat and pressured into remaining silent about their experiences overseas and the help that they needed. Their PTSD and other mental health issues were suppressed, ignored, and turned into unimportant issues by a nation that wanted to turn its back on them in its fervor to condemn the war. The same has happened with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have been reminded that they were participants in a war that no one wanted, and that, by extension, they aren’t wanted either.

No one really likes to talk about the complexities of military service, and what brings people to military service. To so many people with a vested interest in erasing veterans, the equation seems simple: People join up because they’re gun-slinging, Bible-thumping Republicans who want to go overseas and blow some shit up. These individuals become deeply uncomfortable when confronted with the realities of military service, like the fact that the military actively preys on young men of colour, pressuring them to join in a variety of ways from promising better opportunities to giving men the choice between prison and joining up.

Or the fact that for low-income people of all races, the military may be viewed as a way to escape poverty and build a career. As a way to get out of a dangerous or untenable situation — to get out of a small town, or a dying urban community. It may be viewed as part of a family legacy. Yes, it may be a source of pride. It may stem from a sense of duty, and from a genuine desire to serve the American people. People of all political parties, faiths, and backgrounds join the military, for a huge range of reasons — sometimes, for the desire to keep peace, to never be needed at all, to be breathtakingly irrelevant.

What people seem to forget is that servicemembers are human beings, and that while the military is ostensibly apolitical, its individual members are aware of political issues, and they have opinions on them. That includes opinions on the wars they’re fighting in, and how the military is being used. While the myth of the popular service member or vet throwing racial slurs around and talking about how great it was to shoot everything in sight persists, people ignore the realities of the experiences of those who served and have more complicated emotions about their service — what they did and saw overseas, what they were ordered to do, the systems they worked within.

The military can be a harsh place, and it’s even harsher on deployment, particularly for minorities who encounter issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia in service even as they also form deep and lasting friendships. It’s a place that is utterly unique, and a lived experience that we civilians cannot understand: This is a fundamental issue that many people don’t seem to comprehend, that no matter how many memoirs you read and war movies you watch, no matter how much news you absorb and how politically aware you are,¬†you do not know what it is like¬†to serve. Period.

And you do not know what it is like to serve in an unpopular war, to return to a nation where everyone hates you, or congratulates you for the wrong reasons, where you are expected to drift, silent, like a ghost, through the fabric of a country that feels very uncomfortable around you. The government doesn’t want reminders of your presence, as these upset civilians and force accountability for how it’s failing you — how it’s not living up to promises of health care, support, and services to help you integrate back into society as you adjust. Civilians don’t want to see you because they see you as the enemy, or they’re made uncomfortable by what you sacrificed — and they don’t really understand what you sacrificed in the first place.

Veterans’ Day is supposed to be a day about honouring veterans and their legacy, and, notably, many people seem eager to perpetuate the myth of the ‘good war’ and focus on those who survived the Second World War, but they don’t want to confront the realities of wars they think were more messy, more complex. They don’t want to be reminded that veterans of later wars are human beings too, who faced their own issues in war and are continuing to face issues now.

Except that unlike that WWII veterans receiving their well-deserved honours at ceremonies across the country today, many veterans of later wars are being forced into silence and isolation — because they don’t want to deal with the rhetoric surrounding their service, because they don’t want to be reminded that they don’t belong in the cultural understanding of war and who fights it. Honouring veterans is not as simple as a wooden ‘thank you for your service’ followed by moving on — because thankfulness means nothing without substance behind it, and that substance is absent from much of the civilian narrative about veterans and military service.

When civilians bother to take on these issues at all, of course.

Image: Armistice Day Parade, Paul, Flickr