Thursday, March 30, 2017

What you don't know about military veterans (Part 1 of 2)

"Thank you for your service."

Conventional wisdom says conservatives are staunch backers and supporters of the military and veterans.  Liberals, not so much.  As a veteran and a liberal, I've got news for you. Neither side seriously considers or understands the issues, needs, or perspectives of those who served and continue to serve today.  And, to be honest, I'm kind of tired of the platitudes.

In the 60's, liberals were the original "Flower Children" opposing the Vietnam War.  Opponents of the war treated returning veterans shamefully afterward.  Three decades later, many Democrat officials opposed the invasion of Iraq.  Ironically, both of those actions have come to be viewed as historical mistakes, but that has done nothing to lessen the narrative that liberals are "doves" and "hippies" and therefore dislike the military as a matter of principle.

Even my fellow liberals are surprised when they learn that I have a long, multi-generational military background.  Sadly, this particular piece of conservative mythology has seeped across party lines to the point where it is almost universally accepted as true.  The truth is, red or blue, support for the military is more of a prop than a genuine, heartfelt belief.

There's a joke:
     "How many Vietnam Veterans does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
     "I give up, how many?"
     "You weren't THERE, man!"

In those three lines, you can find a whole host of lessons about understanding the military culture.  If you're not sure you should laugh or why, there's a reason.  Let's call it "Civilian Privilege".

You may not think of veterans as a "Marginalized Group" and I can understand that.  Veterans, by and large, have enjoyed special access to services, support, and recognition that many groups have not.  Add to that the inherent strength that is associated with the US military, and it would be easy to dismiss the idea of veterans as a minority or class at all.  And that's sort of the problem.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 7% of the American populace living today ever served in the military.  The LGBT community is somewhere around 5-6%.  The African American community is around 12-13%, and the Hispanic community about 17%.  Statistically, that puts veterans in a sharp minority, comparable with other protected classes.

Did you know that the US military has been in virtually constant hostile action since OPERATION: DESERT STORM in 1991?  That's 26 years.  Entire careers have been spent deploying from conflict to conflict.  Were you aware that there are still over 8,000 US troops in Afghanistan today?  Most people aren't.  That's because, in modern America, nobody has to sacrifice to support ongoing war efforts overseas.  The shelves are full.  There's no rationing.  And news cycles just sort of blow through periodic spurts of coverage when things go sideways.  We've got very short attention spans.  You can turn off your television, close your front door, and forget entirely that there is a segment of the population that has spent two and a half decades in harm's way, and that nobody comes home unchanged from that.  That's the very definition of privilege.

Americans are absolutely shameless in brief, shallow, pre-fabricated displays of patriotism and support for veterans.  We stick a flag out on a holiday, or post a meme on Facebook and call it good.  It's exactly the same sort of co-opting we do during Black History Month.  We talk about Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King for a week and walk away feeling like that qualified as substantive support and understanding.  Nonsense, right?  But, when it comes to veterans, we don't have that same feeling in our guts - that feeling of knowing that we are doing ourselves, our history, and our posterity a disservice by relying on token gestures.

So, red or blue, left or right, when people wave their little plastic flags and say "support our troops," in my heart of hearts, I say the same thing: "You weren't THERE, man!"

In Part 2, I'll discuss common veteran perspectives and how we can do a better job of actually engaging them.

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