Universities, like many institutions, are, beneath their orderly veneer, sites of constant low intensity warfare. More so, perhaps, because they deal in ideas, and human beings are correctively ordered in practical pursuits by the immovable necessities of particular practices; but ideas are inflected by personal psychology and a plurality of ideological commitments, neither of which is anchored by practical necessity. I garden and fish, for example, and if I don’t use the right soil and amendments or the right bait and technique, I get practical feedback in the form of failure. But we can cling to many faulty, even bizarre, ideas for quite some time, especially in universities, because some of these ideas are never tested except within the framework of other ideas; and in a pluralistic culture like ours, we have generated multiple frameworks with premises that are so incommensurable with one another that—in the absence of any ultimate authority for appeal—no resolution to conflicts is even possible. And so the low intensity warfare in universities takes the form of sniping through various media, character assassination, and the mobilization of cliques.
I know two people, whose names and institution I will not cite, one of whom is engaging in this form of warfare against another over the subject of military veterans. I’ll call them (androgynously) Pat and Gale. Pat is a graduate fellow and a veteran, who has organized a group of veterans on campus. Gale is an Ethics professor, never in the military, who is active in the opposition to drone warfare and torture. Both claim to be opposed to war, their pacifism rooted in Christian faith. Pat has had issues with Gale for quite some time, based on Pat’s belief that non-veterans can never speak of veterans, and Pat’s further belief that veterans are the only people who can speak with enough authority on the topics of war and peace to “lead” these public conversations. Gale disagrees. Recently Pat took one of Gale’s tweets from a conference on war out of context, and made the claim that Gale was guilty of “cultural appropriating” veterans.
The Gale tweet: “There is a gnosis of violence going on . . . The notion that combat vets ‘know’ is not good for vets.”
Context: Gnosticism is an insider term among Christians (like myself) that applies to a particular heresy which claims that redemption is achieved by acquiring ever more esoteric (“higher”) forms of “knowledge” which progressively liberate the divine spark. So what Gale tweeted might be translated as: There is an idea that being a former combat soldier is the highest form of knowledge about war; and this mistaken notion is not helpful for the actual human beings who happen to be military veterans (most of whom, by the way, are not “combat” vets). What they need is what the rest of us need: jobs, decent housing, health care, maybe some education and training, and—from my own perspective—some life skills that help them break a lot of military habits and a dependence on veteran-esteem.
The tortured argument that Pat published in a university veteran blog (mobilizing Pat’s clique) can be summarized as “veterans constitute a culture, a culture that is equivalent to that of, say, African Americans; and this tweet is an attempt to ‘appropriate’ the ‘voice’ of veterans, so it is an instance of cultural appropriation.” Which is absurd. I’m sorry, it just is. And it is a completely uncharitable misreading of what Gale was tweeting about.
But I’ve had this conversation with Pat myself, on more than one occasion, and it needs a little background. Not the conversation about “cultural appropriation,” per se, but the one where veterans are some uniquely oppressed class of people, which Pat claims, and with which I emphatically—as another veteran—disagree. If anything, what is being appropriated in all this is the history of genuine oppression by a uniquely entitled class of people—which we veterans are—and in this case by a white veteran (Pat is white). Somehow, Pat claims, this tweet is “the standard pacifist justification of credibility regarding any event about ‘war’ which invites participation by academic[s],’ whose expertise derives exclusively from having ‘written about’ a subject with which they have no ‘first hand’ experience.” As in conversations I have had with Pat myself, for a pacifist, he has never had a good word to say about other pacifists. Pat’s first hand experience in Iraq was in the Artillery branch, and we’ll come back to why that is important.
Pat honestly believes that being a veteran, whatever kind of veteran, who served in a conflict theater, in whatever capacity, is the distinctive qualification for “leading” (he uses this term) any discussion of war. In our own conversations, Pat explained to me that he still missed and admired the camaraderie and shared hardships of military life; and he has taken a page from Alasdair MacIntyre’s most ill-advised passing reference to the military as a site of distinctively Aristotelian virtue—the military as a polis, governed by particular ideas of honor and integrity. He misses that cohesiveness, and believes that this is the salvageable kernel of value that can be rescued from the uglier business of what the American military is actually organized to do. Pat actually teaches a class called “Virtues of War.” I reminded him during our conversation about this that this is the experience of many kinds of collective living, not just the military, but—for example—monastic life, women’s land, firefighters, communes, earlier societies, and so forth.
This is a little like saying that the only people who are qualified to speak about capitalism are production line workers, because they are at that point where the rubber meets the proverbial road. It’s a preposterous notion on its face, and a bald attempt to humiliate, marginalize, and silence anyone who questions the somehow-exclusive authority of veterans to speak about war.
How is the “first hand” experience of an Artillery soldier the same—apart from the greater institutional culture that prevails prior to the initiation of hostilities—as that of an infantry soldier or military police prison guard or an office-bound intelligence analyst or a personnel clerk or a vehicle mechanic or a hospital worker? Do people seriously believe that there is one homogenous “first hand” experience of War, even among one set of imperial soldiers in one theater, apart from General Orders, rank structure, and grotesque ignorance of the people they occupy and attempt to control? Can the abused wife of a soldier who has been formed by the (violently misogynistic) culture of the military speak on war? Can the historian speak on war? When I was in Vietnam as a nineteen-year-old, drug-addled grunt, was I more qualified to speak about the causes of the war than some (ick) academic who had studied the history of the conflict but eschewed participation? What about the people who are occupied, bullied, wounded, and killed by soldiers? What about the people who make the weapons? You see how perfectly imperfect this generalization of “the first hand experience of war” is, when you begin to appreciate how complex and far-reaching is the phenomenon of war itself.
Are we talking about danger? About the risks of service giving someone a special claim to authority? If so, then before we list veterans, we need to list loggers, fisherman, and power line workers who die with greater frequency than soldiers, even during the last decade and a half of high-intensity military occupations. Roofers die at the same rate as the military (even when you include military suicides, which are more common among non-combatant soldiers and veterans that combatants), and for a lot lower pay. But we don’t see Roofers Day parades or statues of fallen power line workers, or bridges named after loggers and fishermen. In terms of job-related disability, home health workers are far worse off than military veterans. And even in the military, there is a hierarchy of risk. Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) is the best job per capita for being killed at work, followed by Special Operations, combat medic, supply truck driver (since Iraq, when our war victims learned to use mechanical ambushes), infantry, rescue swimmer, and helicopter pilot. Does this mean that EOD is the best-qualified to speak about war, even if the technician has no clue about how he or she ended up in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria?
Am I allowed to say, as a veteran, just how full of shit many veterans are? Or what kinds of scuttlebutt makes its way through military barracks? Or how many, and often ridiculous, ways the “first hand” experience of veterans in conflict areas is interpreted by the participants? Or how many Wrong Beliefs these kids have about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and who they are doing it to?
At the full-of-shit desk, standing tall at the front of the line, is PTSD! While there are a few people who suffer from post-traumatic stress in ways that create debilitating problems in their lives, including people who are not veterans, you can’t throw a rock nowadays without hitting some vet who claims the disability (and a bumper crop of shrinks willing to make the diagnosis for disability claims). It is almost a status symbol, yielding simultaneous sympathy and admiration for the mentally-wounded “hero,” and . . . oh, by the way, gives anyone a ready excuse for being a world-class shit. I’m disrespectful to women . . . PTSD. I beat my kids and spouse . . . PTSD. I’m a loud-mouth drunk . . . PTSD. I’m a rapist . . . PTSD. I’m a lazy slug . . . PTSD. I’m a bully . . . PTSD. I committed armed robbery . . . PTSD. You get sympathy, admiration, and a get-out-of-jail-free card. What’s the downside?
So what connects this posing/malingering by veterans, the faulty claim that veterans have some exclusive authority to speak about war, the nostalgia many veterans feel for their days in uniform, and the way veterans get special recognition, official and unofficial, for their “sacrifices” (the military is the highest-paying, highest-benefits job available to most high-school graduates who qualify)?
C’mon, let’s just say it. Militaristic American nationalism. And veterans, while they do get the shitty end of the stick on some benefits (like everyone else in neoliberal, downsizing society), get to cash in on the status and esteem. I wish fishermen and home health workers got the same deal I have—as a retired army veteran—for health insurance. And why aren’t roofers held in such high esteem? They don’t kill anyone or destroy property or spread pain and grief and devastation in their wake. They do work that keeps us dry and comfortable. I have been made to sit in a docked plane and wait while those in uniform were allowed to disembark before the other passengers, and once one jingo jughead started clapping for the kids in uniform, everyone else felt obliged to join in (when I didn’t, people looked at me like I just came out of Fido’s ass).
Pat, going back to our story, supports his claim of cultural appropriation/oppressed class by noting that “veteran” is a federally protected status, like women in sports or black people who want to vote or gay folk who want a job. Really? Veterans need special protection? In fact, what this status is another perquisite that sets aside jobs and other benefits specifically for veterans. Anyone ever seen a law that requires that X percent of your contracting work force be lesbians?
This may at first blush seem strange that I am myself speaking as a veteran—kind of, everything I am saying is equally valid whoever says it—but I am not saying veterans ought not to speak of war, peace, et al, only that we should be held to the same standards as everyone else and not be allowed to get away with talking out of our asses. Our experiences, while always filtered through many personal and historical lenses, are important. But the question is, How are they important? My take is, what we say is important, if what we say is true, as correctives.
One of the reasons veterans are worshipped in this militaristic culture is the mystique that surrounds the military, and this mystique includes a boatload of silly misapprehensions created by military propaganda, official and unofficial, as well as silly macho stories in books, television, and film. The collective imagination of the military by those who are not in the military is one of heroic martial sacrifice, while life in the actual military is—99.9 percent of the time—bureaucratic piddling and checklisting, day-to-day drudgery, and many eyes on many clocks waiting to get home and pop that first beer. Speaking of which, American military home-life is often an orgy of consumerism. Military towns are now oases of wealth accumulation, where tens of thousands of young people with well-paying, secure jobs make money rain on restaurants and bars and lenders and toymakers (adult and child) and entertainers and the builders of cheap new houses.
Veterans benefit from this mystique, and so there is a tacit understanding to keep mum about how off the mark it really is.
Susan Jeffords once wrote about “the war story,” that story of the pathos of one or a few people (usually men) that serves as an “ideological transmission belt” in support of war, by taking the focus off the geopolitical, the financial, the structural reasons for wars, and forcing us to identify with the individual “warrior.” This is precisely what is attempted through the insistence on the veteran as the ultimate authority on war. If correction is what veterans can offer to any discussion of war, then the corrections cannot be more war stories unless the goal is to valorize the warrior and the war.
When I say corrections, I mean just that. Correcting errors. When someone says the US was protecting the South Vietnamese from aggression, I can say that the grunts in my unit were encouraged to hate the Vietnamese—all of them—and to seek any excuse we could find to kill as many of them as we could. I can say that when I spoke with other grunts from other units, they said the same thing. When someone calls a battalion a squad, or treats such terms as interchangeable, or calls all soldiers officers, or doesn’t know the difference between Special Operations and Special Forces, etc., then I can offer corrections. In Pat’s case, Pat wrote an article (as a former artillery soldier) describing snipers as people who kill from several kilometers away, making them like artillerymen, I can offer a correction. I was a sniper for a time, and even the trainer for 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces’ sniper. Snipers generally shoot at ranges under 800 meters, more often half that, and they see what they shoot (one person), unlike artillery which shoots across the horizon with shells that have bursting radii that can kill many unseen people. You see how easily even a veteran can write about combat experience and say things that are mistaken.
Is there such a thing as military culture? I suppose there is, but it also consists of many subcultures. The overall culture is expressed in the language and norms (legal, policy, custom). In Basic Training or Boot Camp, everyone learns how to tell time by a 24-hour clock, express distance using the metric system, know the rank system, follow drill commands, comply with customs and courtesies, basic marksmanship, and so on. After that, people are trained as one form of specialist or another, with further subdivision among specialties by rank. But there is also an unofficial culture, one that is oriented by woman-hating machismo, careerism, and a love of violence. Hey, most young men don’t join the Army or Marines thinking, “Gosh oh gee, I want to serve my nation.” Most, when you talk with them, say either “I need money for school” or “I wanna kill people and blow shit up.”
If there is an official virtue that is reinforced in practice in the military, it is authoritarianism coupled with unquestioning obedience. Ethically, the military is absolutely consequentialist. Mission accomplishment is supreme, and all other factors are subordinated to it. You know what? Gangs and organized crime syndicates have camaraderie and cohesiveness, too. Sometimes, we just have to leave the comfort of what we know. Veterans are not superior in any sense to non-veterans. We are simply veterans; and if we have certain practical concerns in common (VA benefits, e.g.) or certain social concerns in common (the opposition to war), we can join together. Veterans For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War have done that (though many in those organizations still cling to the “special” status of being veterans, instead of simply serving as corrective witnesses.
Elevating the “voices of veterans” (Jeffords’ “war stories”) and claiming special authority for “veterans” is a fundamentally reactionary endeavor; and it will, unchecked, lead one (Pat?) to eventually embrace a reactionary position on the subject of war (and the abandonment of any semblance of pacifism). Because there is a contradiction at the heart of this relation between universally valorizing the soldier/veteran and opposing war. The veteran-as-hero, as well as the veteran-as-victim, and the veteran-as-gnostic-knower, all fall on the side of military nationalism. The veteran is most well-served, as is anyone, when served as the particular and whole person he or she is, not as a “protected” or hyper-valorized category. Because the category itself is too general to be useful except in the service of nationalism and war.