The Soldier Returns: The Veteran’s Odyssey

What does America owe its veterans? Perhaps the best answer to this question came from my friend, Julie Ponzi, in response to a review I had written of Karl Marlantes’s 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.”

Neither sympathy nor pedestals, but gratitude: How simple! But as Rosa Brooks has observed, there are three dominant images of veterans: the killer; the victim; and the hero. The first two date back to Vietnam. The third is an attempt to rectify the Vietnam view by overcompensation.  Today, most Americans do not think of veterans as killers. But, alas, too many Americans see veterans as victims. Those Americans are wrong.

The view of veteran-as-victim  was roundly rejected by our current secretary of defense, James Mattis, in a 2014 speech in San Francisco to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

During the question and answer portion of his speech at the Marine’s Memorial Club, Mattis said:

You’ve been told that you’re broken, 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.While victimhood in America is exalted, I don’t think our veterans should join those ranks.

Mattis observed, how the veteran-as-victim narrative exerts a powerful influence over civilians. It can be seen in news stories that paint veterans as over-represented in rates of suicide, drug abuse, homelessness, and incarceration.

Rather than assuming all souls touched by combat must necessarily suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Mattis offered an alternative, which he calls “post-traumatic growth,” echoing 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 a reality that is far more common in veterans than PTSD, which is 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 to realize that potential for growth.

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.

Gratitude, rather than pedestals or pity, is learning to treat the veteran as an object of admiration and respect, not a victim; and learning that there are qualities of soul that we civilians can and need to learn about by studying the extreme experiences veterans have had in preserving our liberty. Sometimes the job of preserving liberty requires hard things; and knowing this can harden our own thinking in salutary ways.

If our reaction upon hearing of the hard things required for liberty is to assume that they must “distort” us, we are thinking about it in exactly the wrong way. And we are giving ourselves permission to become “victim” to the things and forces that will happily threaten our liberty. John Kerry exemplified that attitude and opinion when, in April 1971, he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations:

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.

This not only explains his attitude toward veterans. It explains his approach to international relations and his soft stance on preserving our liberty. Kerry thinks the hard things we face will distort us rather than make us stronger and deserving of the gratitude of the freedom loving people of earth.

The image of the veteran as victim had its genesis in the anti-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.

Truth is, most veterans—even from the Vietnam War-era—have prevailed over their demons and, like Odysseus, they have returned “home.” Thus, as Mattis observed, the crucible of combat can lead to post-traumatic growth.

All too often, however, ordinary post-traumatic stress is conflated with PTSD. This is probably one reason that led to the scandals afflicting the Department of Veterans Affairs. Is that agency dragged down by bureaucratic inertia and incompetence, even criminal incompetence? The answer is most certainly yes. But it is also the case that the VA is swamped by disability claims for PTSD, which is,for bureaucratic and political reasons, overdiagnosed. Since not all of these additional claims are valid, a bureaucratic version of Gresham’s Law prevails, with bad claims of PTSD often driving out the good.

The veteran-as-victim narrative has hampered efforts by those who want to distinguish between valid and invalid claims of neuropsychiatric disorder resulting from combat. Attempts to draw the distinction have often been blocked by the assumption that to question any claim of a veteran is to deny him what is his by right, reinforcing the veteran’s status as a victim. The tragedy here is that unjustified claims of disability arising from the over-diagnosis of PTSD mean that less money is available to ensure that those truly suffering are receiving the care they need.

Veterans themselves have largely rejected the view of veteran-as-victim. Nonetheless, they also have had to make the journey of Odysseus, the return from war to peace. Iraq War veteran Dave Danelo describes it this way:

As we return .  .  . we feel ourselves growing strong in our center. Like stressed vines making wine, the broken places strengthen our resolve and sweeten our spirits. Combat’s magic and malevolence can never leave us, but we draw on the same places inside us as we move ahead. . . .

When we first come home .  .  . awareness of the fundamental truths of war and peace, appreciation of their euphoric and tragic dualities, and application of combat’s virtues in routine contexts makes us masters of the universal journeys inside our hearts, minds, and spirits. Violent demons of death and depression threaten, but vibrant dreams of dynamism and destiny emerge. We engage with the constant, but not impossible struggle to direct combat’s mental and emotional energy towards a civilian life that is getting more confusing and chaotic every day.

This is what Mattis means by post-traumatic growth, and it, more than the disease orientation of PTSD, describes the journey home that most veterans successfully make.

There are two images that serve as metaphors for the veteran’s return from war. The first, which beautifully captures the duality of human life, is Homer’s description in The Iliad of the Shield of Achilles, which depicts, among other things, the city at war and the city at peace. Of course Achilles, unlike most veterans, will never get to enjoy the fruits of the city at peace.

The second is a passage from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval epic Parzival, which illuminates the psychological split within the veteran engendered by war: “Shame and honor clash where the courage of a steadfast man is motley like the magpie. But such a man may yet make merry, for Heaven and Hell have equal part in him.”

This article is adapted from my article for the June 2, 2014 issue of The Weekly Standard, “Life After Wartime” and from a speech delivered at the Institute for World Politics on November 7, 2017.


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