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Opening Arguments

The gulf, war

Some interesting and sometimes-painful-to-read observations on the relationship between veterans and nonveterans:

My generation of veterans has adopted an odd moniker: The Next Greatest Generation. We grew up watching Band of Brothers and found parallels in this dramatization of World War II experiences to what we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan—brotherhood, sacrifice, the struggle to endure long and bitter conflicts. We’re just as capable as they were, and they changed the world, the thinking goes. We proclaim our greatness at the beginning of the second chapter of our lives.

But there’s a problem with that logic: It means our sense of greatness is derived from that first chapter. While some of the greatest contributions the World War II generation gave this country happened after the war, our self-admiration is based entirely, by contrast, from our time in service.  And that troubling attitude means a continued isolation from the society we left behind.

A recent piece written by Raul Felix, a war veteran in college, is a good example. The author takes a patronizing view toward civilian members of Generation Y, suggesting that they are complacent and lacking worldly wisdom. While the standard “think piece” on the civilian/military divide laments the fissure between the groups, this one champions it: “Your major tests were your finals, ours was going to war,” Felix says. “You heard and read about it from the news; we lived it.”

I once talked to a World War II veteran about the experience of attending college after coming home, and asked if it was jarring to sit next to those who never served. I wondered if veterans huddled together under the umbrella of mutual understanding and thought less of civilians who never shouldered a rifle. His answer was surprising. They were proud of their time in uniform, he said, but for many, the war interrupted their lives, and education was a return to normalcy. Instead of a victory lap, they were more interested in getting back on track.

A couple of his points seem a little off to me.

For one thing, I think he understates the extent to which the "Greatest Generation" is rememmbered for its war experience. Yeah, after the war they built the institutions inherited by baby boomers that we sc rewed up. But mostly they saved the world, and that is what they are honored for.

And I thinks he overstates the difference between WW II and current vets' attitudes toward civilians. Just about every veteran who has come home from a war has had  somewhat jaundiced view of those who haven't been to war and thus can't related to the soldiers' experience. It was certainly true of those of us who came back from Vietnam, and I'm sure it was for those coming home from Europe and the pacific, their desire to return to normality notwithstanding.

Perhaps the difference is merely that the verteran-civilian gulf is greater today, so it's harder to bridge. He puts the solution for the divide on civilians:


I call it the pedestal problem.

For many civilians, veterans are thought about in the span of football halftime shows, where we gawk at troops standing on the sidelines while the camera lingers on flags flapping in the wind. The word hero is tossed around and abused to the point of banality. The good intentions of civilians are rarely in question, but detached admiration has always been a stand-in for the impulse to do “something” for veterans.

So civilians clap at football games. They applaud returning troops in airports in outward appreciation, satisfied with their magnanimous deeds. Then—for many of them--it’s back to more tangible concerns, like the fragile economy. A veteran’s résumé might come across your desk, but if you’re like more than half of these surveyed hiring managers, you harbor suspicion and fear about post-traumatic stress episodes in the workplace.

I guess I'd put a little of it on the veterans, too. If two sides are gonna meet halfway, one can't do all the walking. They can try taking the chips off the shoulders from time to time. Makes it a lot easier to get around, let me tell you.