Should Veterans Become Activists?
In pursuit of peace and an end to war – Einstein reminded us that peace is not merely an absence or negation of conflict, but is rather the presence of justice, law and order – activists have petitioned their representatives, voted for “peace” candidates, taken to the streets, demonstrated, practiced civil disobedience, and suffered abuse and arrest by an “overzealous” police force. Yet, war, militarism and imperialism continue, and the Constitution, international law and numerous treaties are routinely violated. While these means for effecting change must certainly continue, I have argued elsewhere that activists must intensify their efforts to educate and enlighten Americans about the nature and the reality of war as well as its legal and moral implications and consequences.
Returning veterans who have experienced the horror, insanity, frustration and futility of war would be, and have been, particularly effective activists for peace are and uniquely qualified to educate about war’s nature and reality as they enjoy an expertise and credibility which others, who allege to “know” war solely from theory and at a distance, lack. But the fact that veterans could be, and have been, effective activists, does not entail that they should be activists.
The decision whether to publicly share their experiences, to speak out against the war or wars in which they fought or to just remain silent is not always easy. It is understandable that many veterans may be hesitant to discuss and relive their “time in hell,” particularly with those who were not there. Complicating the decision still further – and perhaps more importantly, hindering veteran healing – are the Warists, those political leaders, corporate executives and bankers who, while risking nothing in the undertaking, advocate for and profit from war. Recognizing endless war to be in their interest, Warists perpetuate the myth of heroism and purpose, a fantastical scenario in which war is necessary to meet an existential threat, struggle is noble and heroic, and American values and freedom hang in the balance.
Implied in this mythology is the allegation that speaking out and questioning war’s purpose, necessity and legality is unpatriotic, a betrayal of comrades still in harm’s way that demeans and diminishes their sacrifices as well as that of those who never returned from war. It functions, as well, as a warning to veterans that facing the truth about war is detrimental to their healing, as living with the experience, difficult enough when returning a hero from a just and noble effort, would be intolerable were all the suffering and death unnecessary – accomplishing nothing other than the fattening of war profiteers’ coffers.
Tragically, then, the myth has provided veterans both the motivation and the means to avoid confronting and working through the psychological, emotional and moral (PEM) injuries of war. Consequently, many vulnerable veterans have embraced the Warist’s deception that patriotism, fidelity to comrades and healing requires they remain silent, perhaps even supportive, of a war they know from experience to be morally and legally ambiguous at best, unwinnable and a waste of precious blood and treasure. “Just forget about the war, and put it behind you,” is the mythmaker’s counsel. “In time, the wounds of war will heal, the memories, intrusive thoughts and nightmares will fade, and life will be as it was before.” In embracing the myth, veterans reject activism as ill-advised and activists as misguided, even dangerous.
As evidenced by the high rate of PEM injuries – such as PTSD, suicide, homelessness and addiction – plaguing returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, and the chronic PEM injuries still afflicting veterans from Vietnam, Korea and World War II, war never goes away, nor does time alone heal all wounds. While there may be no cure for PEM injuries, healing may be possible in learning to live with the invisible wounds of war by gaining an understanding of the experience and finding a place for it in one’s being. What has become clear over many years and many wars is that being silent about the experience is not curative. For the healing process to begin, veterans must garner the courage and presence of mind to face their demons head-on. Trauma, guilt and shame must not remain static, veterans’ personal and private burden. Rather, these emotional experiences must be communalized – that is, examined, unpacked and discussed with others who understand and/or shared the experience.
It is here, in the company of comrades, that veterans can begin to ask the difficult questions. What was accomplished by the war I fought in? How did it make America safer, allay existential threats, or preserve our freedom and values? How is it patriotic to continue to support a war I know in my heart to be a mistake, even a crime? How does remaining silent serve the interest of comrades still in harm’s way or honor the sacrifices of the fallen? Through dialogue, introspection and reasoned analysis, the Warist’s pretense becomes apparent and veterans understand that patriotism and fidelity to their comrades requires not blind, unquestioning obedience, or collusion by silence with the crimes of the warmakers and profiteers, but rather that they speak out and oppose unnecessary war, demand our troops return home immediately, and that their injuries be adequately cared for upon their return. In time, veterans realize that honor and duty require that they reject the myth and ensure that the Warists be prevented from further exploiting the memory and sacrifices of the fallen for personal gain.
The journey to healing is long and difficult, and given the moral enormity and gravity of the war experience, it is not uncommon for PEM injuries to persist, causing veterans to feel that renewal and redemption are necessary to once again rejoin the moral community of humankind. It is at this crucial juncture in the healing process that veterans realize the importance of activism. By speaking out, educating the public about the truth of war, exposing Warist’s lies and holding them accountable, upholding the moral integrity and national interest of their nation, working for the well-being and dignity of their comrades and for the betterment of humankind – that is, by becoming activists, many veterans can, and have, found the renewal, absolution and penance they so desperately need to forgive themselves and go on with their lives.
So in conclusion, the answer to the title question of this essay is clear. Of course veterans should become activists, because activism is curative, patriotic, and respectful of the dignity and well-being of their comrades, living and dead. Most importantly, because veterans know the horror and insanity of war firsthand, speaking out in behalf of peace is necessary and right. Consequently, for the veteran, activism is no longer a choice but an obligation.