The Battle After the War
How veterans are treated and remembered depends a great deal on how a nation remembers its wars. The country weaves the memory of the war into the communal mythology of its collective heritage. All wars are fundamentally cruel, obscene, and pitiless, but some wars are recast as heroic fables in its national history. America cherishes the memory of its wars when our cause was considered righteous, and especially when the war ended in victory. Those wars that bring ignominy will be either mythologized or buried in history. Wars that stoke our national pride or stir us with heroic acts—those wars become the enduring stories we tell about ourselves.
In this post we explore how America’s perception of its wars affects how we treat that war’s veterans. With a focus on the past 100 years, each image tells a part—but certainly not the whole—mythology of our wars and the people who fought them.
Wars typically begin with exuberant flag-waving and ostentatious displays of patriotism, and America’s entry into World War I in 1917 was no exception. The Office of War Information produced a blizzard of patriotic posters, films, and public speakers to wrap the nation’s social fabric around a common identity and purpose. Those voices opposed to war are socially condemned in any age, but during World War I dissent was fiercely repressed. Americans seen as lukewarm in their patriotism, or too sympathetic to Germany, were shamed and labeled as traitors. Some were tarred and feathered, some were even hanged by mobs. Tens of thousands of young men volunteered for the call to arms, but a draft was necessary to build an army of millions. The young men sought opportunity, adventure, or status as warriors and patriots—reasons that have always appealed to young men in times of war. Initially the recruits may have been motivated by abstract ideals such as liberty, country, and duty, but once in the merciless trenches, they fought to survive and to protect their brothers in arms. In short, the fighting men behaved and believed just like their soldier sons, grandsons and great-grandsons would in the century of American wars that have followed.
President Woodrow Wilson declared the reasons for the war and justified the sacrifice, as all wartime presidents must do. In 1917, it was to save the world from autocracy and poverty. In the debates before the war, those old enough to have seen or experienced war understand that the sacrifice of blood and treasure will be enormous, and that an immense waste and sadness are inevitable. Those who have never known war tend to predict quick and easy victory. But few wars are either either quick or easy, no matter the sums of money committed to the war effort, the might of the American military, our determination to achieve victory, or the seeming inferiority of the enemy.
During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, an average of 550 American doughboys died each day for 47 straight days. But American troops fought in only the final months of World War I, and America’s combat dead—53,402—was modest in comparison to the colossal carnage of The Great War. Ten million young men were killed from 1914 -1918, mostly from machine gun fire and artillery shells. Britain, France, Germany, and other nations were drained of their youth. The guns silenced at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, with the unconditional surrender of Germany. America had formally declared war, and in the end America declared unequivocal victory. In all our wars, that has happened only twice.
The troops coming home were given $60 and rail ticket home after discharge. A study in 1921 estimated that 76,000 US veterans suffered from shell shock, the term then for PTSD. By July 1921, 400 veteran suicides were reported in New York state alone. Veterans could receive medical care only if they could get to a facility of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers; the modern Veterans Administration would not be created until 1930. Disabled vets could get vocational training, but there was no GI Bill for the millions of others. It was the dawn of the film age, and heroic narratives of war, in the tradition of John Wayne in the Sands of Iwo Jima, were yet to be imagined. At the time, the war was largely remembered for its horror. It was supposed to the “war to end all wars.”
African-Americans hoped service in the army would earn them equality in American society. Other marginalized groups, such as young Japanese-American men interned in World War II, would similarly seek to demonstrate their patriotism in the wars that followed. The US military was strictly segregated until the Korean War, when the overwhelming need for troops forced integration, and Black troops in World War I were relegated to support roles. Some Black troops, however, were assigned to the front lines with French units, which did not discriminate like the American army. Nearly 200 Black troops earned France’s highest honor, the Legion of Merit. They may have performed bravely in combat, but they came home to a country where the Ku Klux Klan was in the midst of a revival. Scores of African-Americans, including veterans just returned from combat in France, were lynched in the months and years after the war.
The scale of global death and destruction was unparalleled in World War II. Germany was bombed into rubble, killing up to half a million German citizens, and Japanese cities were turned into ashes in vast incendiary raids. The American homeland, however, escaped nearly unscathed. Perhaps that’s why the glorification and mythologization of World War II has prospered, especially during the 1980s and 1990s. Paul Fussell, who was severely wounded in France in 1944, is one of numerous scholars who have pushed back on America’s love affair with a brutal, devastating war. “For the past fifty years, World War II has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty,” he writes in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War.
The GIs and generals, the battles and bombs and B-29s—they’ve all been idealized in our national consciousness. So is the story we tell ourselves about America during the war. Unlike the sentimental Hollywood portrayals of one great American wartime family, the country was beset with labor strikes, riots, racism (even the blood supply was segregated), draft dodgers, and a thriving black market to cheat the rationing system. The “Greatest Generation” suffered the highest divorce rate in the country’s history in 1946. The war had exacted a terrible toll on the survivors: American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen suffered vast physical and psychological trauma from “The Good War,” and those invisible wounds echoed through the next generation.
But World War II has become sacrosanct in the American collective memory. It was a morally righteous war against unquestionable evil. It was a war that ended in absolute victory. Veterans of other wars may suffer as greatly or demonstrate as much bravery, but no other veterans are as revered the ones who landed at Omaha Beach or Guadalcanal.
Millions of troops used the GI Bill in the years following World War II to build houses in the suburbs and go to college. The GI Bill was a belated lesson from World War I, when the government made no provisions for the lives of veterans after the war. Impoverished by the Great Depression, 17,000 destitute veterans, and their wives and children, encamped on a field opposite the White House in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1932. The “Bonus Army” demanded payment of the war bonuses that had been promised them. On July 28, 1932, President Herbert Hoover, facing re-election and determined to show his law-and-order mettle, ordered the veterans removed by force. The U.S. Army operation was commanded by Douglas MacArthur, with tanks commanded by George Patton. Cavalrymen with swords and tear gas charged the veterans of the Bonus Army and their families, driving them out and burning their shacks to the ground.
The GI Bill shaped the post-war American society and economy, but its benefits were not shared equally. In 1947, only two of more than 3,200 VA-guaranteed home loans in 13 Mississippi cities were given to African-American veterans of the war. That prejudice was not confined to the South. Fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages guaranteed by the GI Bill in New York and parts of New Jersey suburbs helped buy homes for non-white veterans.
Between 1950 and 1953, eight million men served in the Korean War. They suffered 36,574 dead, 8,177 MIAs, 103,284 wounded, and 7,140 POWs. The war had gone badly: in the first six months, North Korean forces nearly pushed American and South Korean forces off the peninsula. After MacArthur’s vaunted landing at Inchon and push to the Yalu River on the Chinese border, the American Army and Marines were forced into a horrifying retreat through bitter cold. The Chosin Reservoir has been spun as a story of American heroism, but the suffering of the ill-equipped and poorly lead troops was piteous and haunting. American bombers leveled North Korea’s cities, but the war stalemated roughly where it had begun
Many Korean War veterans had served in World War II and been re-drafted to fight a war in a country they’d never heard of. Over three-quarters of Americans supported the war when it began, but the nation soured on the war and its veterans, when victory became elusive and the cause for war remained unclear. Korean War veterans returned to a society that they felt was ashamed of them—the soldiers who had defeated Hitler could not win a war against a smaller and less-resourced country. The war was readily ignored in the gush of material prosperity of the 1950s. Rumors of Communist “brain washing” of American POWs fueled a paranoia that these men had been turned into agents of the Communists and lurked as enemies within. As a consequence, thousands of Korean War veterans kept their service a secret after they resumed their civilian lives.
The Vietnam War remains one of the primary traumas to America’s soul. A war arguably launched so the political elite would not be accused of being “soft on Communism,” it began in earnest when the US Marines marched ashore in 1965 full of elan, confidence, and idealism. Ten years later, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, America had already tortuously re-imagined the war and its implications over and over. The Vietnam war and its veterans have powerfully influenced American political currents and cultural beliefs ever since. America’s faith in itself as a kind and righteous nation was deeply shaken by the open barbarity of the war. Carpet bombings, zippo squads, napalm, body counts—all were presented in vivid color in the pages of Life magazine and others. The press had never before, nor has since, revealed such stark truth about the ugliness of America’s wars.
Anti-war activism was spurred by the deep sense that the war was cruel and anathema to America’s moral identity. For the first and only time in the nation’s history, thousands of veterans publicly marched in opposition to their war. Veterans returned from Vietnam not with their battalion or company, but alone on a plane after their 365-day tour. Many of them were anguished by their countrymen’s condemnation of their war, felt abandoned by their government, and suffered grievous physical and psycho-spiritual injuries. Unlike their fathers, who had fought “The Good War” and entered a booming economy, Vietnam veterans returned to an America sliding into recession and a VA system unable to adequately help them. It was not until 1980 that Post-traumatic Stress Disorder was formally listed as a psychological condition, opening up research and better mental health care for veterans.
The Vietnam War, and the experience of its veterans, has been re-purposed in the collective memory. The actual history of the war—which ended with 57,000 American and over 1 million Vietnamese dead—has been eclipsed by a story of what happened after the war. That story is about the suffering of Vietnam veterans who were neglected by their country. Within that story is a persistent moral tale about the abuse of veterans by civilians, in particular the belief that Vietnam veterans were commonly spit upon by hippie protestors in airports. That belief is pervasive, but the historical record simply does not support it. There is no photographic record and few credible accounts. A 1972 U.S. Senate study found that 94% of Vietnam veterans reported their reception by civilians their own age was “friendly”; only 3% reported their reception was “not at all friendly.” Vietnam veterans suffered from the memory of a hideous war, as most veterans do, but the story of their betrayal by civilians is largely a myth perpetrated for political reasons. The myth of betrayal attempts to explain the inexplicable: why a country that could land men on the moon could not win a war against a small, undeveloped nation.
Another story in the collective memory is that an ungrateful nation never gave Vietnam veterans a parade like the glorious ticker-tape parades their fathers received on V-J Day in 1945. This is largely true, though it had more to do with the logistics of a one-year tour of duty and the unending, inconclusive war they fought. A few veterans did receive parades, however. In July 1969, Seattle hosted a parade of about 900 soldiers fresh back from the war. They were ostensibly part of the draw-down of US combat troops in Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program. “The parade was a smoke screen,” says Rik Burkhart, a combat veteran who marched in this parade. In other words, the ostentatious celebration of bringing back the troops belied the truth that the war was barely half over: over 28,000 more American boys were to die in Vietnam.
Unlike World War II, the Vietnam War ended in defeat, not victory. Unlike World War II, America will never be able to memorialize Vietnam as a moral or righteous war. Vietnam remains a collective memory of sadness in America’s psyche and deep shame of the pain inflicted on our veterans.
The Persian Gulf War, or Operation Desert Storm, has also been called the “100-hour war.” After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, President George H.W. Bush sent 200,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to prepare to push Iraq out of Kuwait. Americans were reluctant to embrace a desert war in the Middle East, however. The pretext for the war was to kick one oil-rich petrostate out of another. The war lacked a moral urgency. “I hope you don’t treat these soldiers like you treated the Vietnam vets,” President George H.W. Bush then declared, changing instantly the debate about the war into a referendum on “supporting the troops”—and changing how America talks about war ever since. Iraq’s vastly outdated and outgunned army suffered up to 100,000 dead, according to a Time-Life celebratory issue. America’s combat losses were 147 soldiers. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all,” President Bush announced after the victory, on March 1, 1991. He was right: America had shed its post-Vietnam reluctance to commit to war. The country reveled in its military might. The troops for this war returned to a massive ticker-tape parade in New York City.
The utterly lopsided victory, achieved in record time, suggests the veterans and their war should be hallowed history. Yet the Persian Gulf War has largely vanished from America’s collective memory. So have its veterans. This war ultimately had no compelling moral prerogative, which casts a shadow over the righteous story that America can tell about it. The war was carefully managed for television. The US military learned from its experience in Vietnam that a public exposed to the terrible truth of war ultimately withdraws their support for war. Journalists were relegated to press tents and official briefings instead of following the war where it was being fought.
The story of the Persian Gulf War, and its resulting place in America’s mythology, was communicated in a handful of images: American troops silhouetted against a desert sunset, or the grainy black-and-white silent video of targets disappearing with a flash and instantaneous cloud of dust. These images did not support heroic stories, nor did the fuzzy moral pretext for the war of saving an oil-rich sheikdom. America seems to have consigned the Persian Gulf war and its veterans to the back row of its history.
The horrifying terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, launched the War on Terror. On live television, America watched thousands of civilians perish in the flames and black smoke of the World Trade Center, some leaping to their deaths far below. No war in America’s history began with more emotional anguish, a greater sense of righteousness, or a more just cause. No war has seen such sustained patriotic support. No war has had so little dissent. No war in America history has lasted so long.
The veterans of these wars have returned to a country that has elevated their status in society. The pervasive and rigidly enforced civic expectation is reverence, even adulation, of members of the military. It is a far cry from social attitudes of just a few decades ago. The universal homage for veterans in American society since 9/11 has no precedent—not even during or after our most celebrated war, World War II.
Veterans of the War on Terror have access to the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for education. The finest technology is available to provide prostheses for over 1,500 amputees. Charitable organizations serving veterans number in the thousands. But though this generation of veterans have more resources available to them for mental health treatment than any generation before, the rates of moral injury, PTSD, and suicide for these veterans remain as high as any war. The reasons for this are difficult to know. It is possible that these modern wars are simply as inhuman as any other war; the experience of killing will always leave invisible wounds in veterans. It is possible too that our all-volunteer professional military is now exploited for efficiency as a labor force for war. The veterans of these wars have been deployed on more tours, and endured more days of combat exposure, than their fathers or grandfathers.
While this generation of veterans currently hold a place of great honor in American society, it is unclear how America will remember their wars. A whole generation has grown up that was not yet born on September 11, 2001. They did not witness the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan. They and future generations will intuit the meaning of America’s history from Hollywood movies and the invisible cues of our national collective memory. Perhaps history will teach future generations that the War on Terror began with righteousness and that our cause was just. But victory by any reasonable definition has been elusive in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the sacrifice of over 7,500 American lives, thousands of wounded, and hundreds of thousands with psychological trauma—and trillions of dollars—these countries remain defiantly unstable, violent, repressive, and undemocratic. Fifty years from now, will America mythologize and revere the War on Terror and its veterans? Or will America gradually settle into a collective amnesia about these wars, what they cost, and forget the men and women who fought them?
Jeb Wyman has been a faculty member for over twenty years at Seattle Central College. He has interviewed over seventy veterans for a collection of first-person accounts, What They Signed Up For: True Stories by Ordinary Soldiers. He is the academic director of the Clemente Course for Veterans at Antioch University, a program for veterans who study history, philosophy, art, and literature. He is currently on Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau, delivering a talk called “Sometimes Heroes: America’s Changing Relationship with Its Veterans.” Find an upcoming event on Humanities Washington’s calendar.