Ever since World War II’s Greatest Generation ushered in an age of peace on prosperity never before seen in America, the image of veterans has been steeply mythologized in our culture, and it’s setting unrealistic expectations for the veterans of today who are trying to successfully transition back to civilian life after the fighting’s done.
At least that’s according to a blistering Atlantic article penned by Alex Horton, a former U.S. infantryman and veteran of the Iraq conflict. In the article, he outlines what he calls the “pedestal problem,” or the disconnect that occurs between veterans and the public whenever veterans are put on a pedestal as unimpeachable heroes.
While the good intentions of civilians are rarely in question, many veterans like Alex Horton find it difficult to find a “normal life” upon returning home, since civilians rarely let them forget about their service.
Our so-called “detached admiration” of veterans makes for great Super Bowl halftime shows, yet never seems to translate into anything tangible for them when they’re, say, interviewing for a new job. Horton cites a Center for New American Security study that shows more than half of hiring managers harbor suspicion and fear about post-traumatic stress episodes in the workplace.
“That’s the problem with viewing someone on a pedestal,” Horton says. “You can only see one side at a time, and rarely at depth. It produces extremes – either the valiant hero or the downtrodden, unusable veteran.”
To the extreme
Indeed, a growing contingent of veterans is tired of extreme interpretations of their service, both good and bad. The New York Times profiled several of these soldiers in a cutting piece titled Please Don’t Thank Me for My Service, where many veterans expressed diminishing returns for civilian accolades:
To some recent vets — by no stretch all of them — the thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people who, while meaning well, have no clue what soldiers did over there or what motivated them to go, and who would never have gone themselves nor sent their own sons and daughters.”
The societal gulf between veterans and civilians was documented as far back as 1997, and two major conflicts since then have hardened the proposition. Some believe the lack of a draft for our post-Vietnam wars has kept civilians from having any skin in the game, and made it easier to detach themselves from any real sacrifice or consequences our soldiers face.
This creates an uneasy balance in society – wars are being fought on foreign shores perpetually, but unlike World War II, when the entire country mobilized to support our troops in unprecedented fashion, the average American has no real obligation to think about or consider any of it.
“Thank you for your service” turns into a release for civilian guilt and a placeholder for meaningful action in the eyes of soldiers.
A big Chinook
Take the case of former NBC News anchor Brian Williams. When taken to task for the controversy over his fabrication of a harrowing Chinook helicopter attack while covering the Iraq war, he apologized by saying, “This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women veterans everywhere.”
Williams turned a relatively uneventful helicopter ride to an extreme tale of heroism for seemingly arbitrary reasons, perfectly illustrating how the experiences of our veterans are warped and extrapolated back home to keep them atop the mythical pedestal.
Veterans are all too aware of the insincerity of this particular brand of praise, and their frustration is real.
Life on the Pedestal
Soldiers are indoctrinated to believe that the skills they develop while serving their country – skills that we’ve talked about before, like teamwork, work ethic, self-discipline, and communications – are golden, and when they leave the service they are told to expect recognition everywhere they go. They end up getting a lot of recognition in the form of yellow ribbons, but not much in the way of new and different opportunities, and many of them have a harsh awakening when they find that new skills are needed to enter the private sector.
Many veterans experience a period of underemployment upon separating from the military before building the necessary skills to survive. As of now, over 570,000 veterans in America are jobless, and no amount of plaudits can change that.
Life on the veteran pedestal can be isolating, as it makes people unwilling to reach the person on top out of fear of tipping it over and shattering the myth. Even worse, it strips veterans of human qualities we all possess like fragility and imperfection, turning them into one-dimensional G.I. Joe cartoons.
In truth, most vets simply want their normal, grounded lives back when they return home – and who could blame them after what they’ve been through. The problem with myths is they put a romantic gloss over true events, and end up pulling the focus away from true heroism. Just ask Brian Williams about that.
No thanks, no worries
Fortunately there is a trio of organizations committed to changing the dialogue between soldiers and civilians: The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon are dedicated to helping vets regain a sense of mission after their service while successfully re-integrating with civilian society. The Pat Tillman Foundation provides secondary education for vets who show leadership potential, giving them the skills they need to compete in the current market [via The Atlantic].
If you’d like to show your thanks this Veterans Day without encouraging myth-making, quietly supporting the aforementioned organizations is a good start. Or better yet, hire a vet if it’s within your power.
Try your best to stay above veteran stereotypes. Bring them down from the pedestal, engage them as people, and try to understand how their experiences have shaped them – you might find that you have a lot more in common than you think.
Gestures like these say “thank you” to them in a way that waving a flag never could.
This was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog.