How we represent veterans matters. This is a concept central to my research, which attempts to provide historical perspective on the always complicated relationship between armies and the societies they were created to protect. To understand that relationship at a given place and time, I rely on images and phrases that have moved beyond their original more limited symbolic use to become mythic in nature. Once an image or phrase has shifted into the realm of myth, it contains a ready made story within it that viewers or readers don’t need to decode as much as re-enact. Two such phrases that have been on my mind considerably of late are: “more are dying every day” and “thank you for your service.”
The first of these phrases appeared in a somewhat altered form in an article published by the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, March 15 about seven brothers from the Powell family who had served in the Second World War. In that article, the writer addressed a move by the state of Illinois to name a section of highway in Greene County, Illinois “The Powell Brother’s Memorial Highway.” He suggested that state lawmakers should move fast, saying:
“George Powell is the last survivor among the Powell brothers and the lone surviving sibling of the 13 Powell children. He’s also 99 years old, living in a Traverse City, Mich., rehabilitation center. Meanwhile, the number of World War II vets continues to decline. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 550 veterans from that conflict die every day, and that 1.2 million of the 16 million who served in the war are alive today” (“Bad of Brothers.”).
Numbers don’t lie, according to this writer, and consequently we must hurry to honor the service of veterans such as George Powell, “550 veterans from that conflict die every day.” But the question we don’t ask as we read this article is why this war and why this sense of urgency? The writer assumes we already know.
Perhaps we do. But it is worth remembering that the Second World War is one of the “good wars” in American consciousness. Fought to save the world from Fascism and end the human rights abuses of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. In this respect at least, the Second World War bears a strong similarity to the United States Civil War, which was fought to end slavery and nudge the nation in the direction of improving civil rights for black men. So it should come as no surprise that the words and phrases used to describe these conflicts and their legacy are close in nature. Writing in a Galveston, Texas newspaper on Sunday, May 30, 1897, the writer claimed that:
“Nearly two thirds of those who fought in the Civil War have already passed away. Of the 2,800,000 men called into the service of the nation, only a few more than 1,000,000 remain. By 1940 these will be reduced to a battalion of 340, and, five years later, not one will be alive” (“More Than Half Are Dead.”).
There is something uncanny about the writer of this article in the 1890’s referencing dates that would become associated with the nation’s next “good war.” More important, however, is the logic of urgency that we see repeated in this article. The generation associated with the Civil War is rapidly dying off and soon no one with living memory of the war will remain. Honor the veterans while you may for soon none will walk among you.
In the Civil War era, this logic actually proved untrue. Although there is some dispute over when the last Civil War veteran died, many agree that it was some time in the 1960’s or 70’s. This rate of decline would be comparable to that of other wars as the last veterans of World War I have only recently died and the last veterans of the United States Revolutionary War died in the 1820’s and 30’s.
Belief in the rapid mortality of World War II vets, the last examples of what to the national mind must appear to be a blissfully uncomplicated war, is paired with the concept made visible in the phrase “thank you for your service.” Naming a roadway for George Powell and his brothers is one method of thanks. But now we find many businesses offering discounts to veterans and their families and the presence of a man or woman in uniform elicits spontaneous applause in airports and train stations. One veteran, Dave Duffy, complains in a Washington Post editorial from Thursday, March 19 that this action by U.S. civilians puts soldiers on a pedestal. He says:
I get it that society is grateful for our military service, and reasonably so. I also believe that society’s overboard efforts to recognize military service are directly related to the lasting guilt over how we treated returning Vietnam veterans….Teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, scientists, social workers, civil servants, diplomats and, yes, military all do our part to make our society a bit better while taking care of our citizens. All deserve admiration and thanks. (“Stop Putting Our Soldiers On a Pedestal.”).
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Duffy makes an important point that service should be the reason we honor veterans rather than latent guilt. Service to the country is what makes the concept of republican government work in the first place. Without people willing to vote, serve on juries, run for political office, and the many other thankless but necessary tasks that make up life in a participatory society, we do not have a participatory society.
So where does this leave us? How should we represent veterans and interact with them in a meaningful way?
I’ve thought about this question a great deal even as I’ve spent much of my time contextualizing the ways in which symbolic language use got us to the point we are at today. The best answers that I’ve arrived at so far are: Ask veterans how they would like to be remembered. Remember that not all veterans are the same.
Knowledge is the best cure for stereotyping of any person or group. For what is a myth but a form of stereotype? If you don’t know a veteran, make a point of befriending one in a genuine way. If you know a veteran, take the time to speak with them about their service. Also, it is important for all U.S. citizens to learn more about the military system that your tax dollars support. The civilian military gap can’t solely be blamed on soldiers. There is a lot as civilians that we simply don’t want to know. Army life is one of those things.