It’s always strange to go back home, especially if it has been a long time. Most soldiers join shortly after high school, and when they come home and invariably run into old friends, the conversations can get pretty strange as you catch up.
The other day, when someone asked on Facebook, “Anyone else feel immense relief when arriving home alive after a long road trip?” I responded with:
I was referring to long, dangerous road trips I’ve been on while deployed, and the relief felt when you get back to the relative safety of the base.
While I was just having fun, the incident got me thinking about how veterans tend to frame everything they touch through the prism of their service. The “Condescending Army Commercial,” a spot on parody by College Humor released in 2009 is a spoof of an actual series of Army commercials that ran under the theme of “Strength for Now, Strength for Later.” In the official Army commercials, they focus on a veteran after he or she leaves the service and is back in the civilian world. When they’re faced with challenges, they are able to lean on their prior service and military experience to relate to their civilian peers.
In those commercials, after the veteran thinks back to his or her military experience, they always seem to respond in a subtely condescending tone, as if to say, “yeah, this ain’t shit compared to what I’ve been through.” The folks at College Humor picked up on that condescending tone, and thus the brilliant parody.
This isn’t just a parody of Army commercials though. Some veterans, whether it be at the workplace, college, or on social media, have a tendency to respond to any event through the prism of their service, even when it really isn’t relevant. I watch veterans constantly crowbar their service into conversations where it just sits there, awkwardly.
My favorite part in the parody is the end, where the bearded guy says: “Hey man, when I ask you about things, can you not be a condescending dick about it?”
To which, our veteran replies in a condescending tone: “Yeah, I think I can not be a codescending dick about it!”
There are a number of tropes involved with being a veteran. One of them says that if someone asks you if you ever killed someone, you are supposed to be offended. Like most veterans, when I was inevitably asked this question by some unsuspecting civilian, I indeed found myself offended, mostly because I thought I was supposed to be. As time has gone on, however, I’ve found that I’m less and less offended by the question and actually think it’s a pretty relevant one. The fact that we (veterans) berate others for asking it says more about our own self-righteousness than it does about the civilian population’s insensitivity or poor understanding of the military.
If you had to boil down to a single thing exactly what it is that makes the military unique, I think you would get past marching and rank and uniforms and eventually arrive at the fact that the military enjoys society’s most generous monopoly on violence. The fact that you can join the military and potentially be given carte blanche to kill is fascinating, considering that under most other circumstances, killing will likely see you killed in return or thrown in jail. It is not strange, therefore, that someone who upon learning that you served in the military – especially in the combat arms – would be curious to know if you ever killed someone. In my experience, that question usually comes after a couple of cursory questions like “where did you serve” and “were you overseas.” Then, in whispered tones, that person will ask if you ever killed someone. Sometimes they’ll even obscure the question a bit, saying something to the effect of “did you ever, you know, have to use your rifle?”
Thinking on it, I’ve never found myself truly offended by it, but being plugged into the veteran sphere, I know I am supposed to be.
No, instead I’ve always found the question more awkward than offensive, in the same vein of being asked about your sexual history. I don’t think I’ve ever demured from the question, instead rattling off a non-answer, speaking in generalities of things my unit had done or circumstances in which I fired my rifle.
Part of the awkwardness of responding to the question is the fact that by giving an answer you are destroying the mystery of your military service. A non-answer, as I like to to give, keeps the mystery alive. Answering in the affirmative and in detail may reveal the monster that some believe you to be. And to admit that you had not strips away that one thing that truly makes military service unique to other professions.
For most veterans, there is, in fact, a definitive answer to the question: no. Most service members will never fire a shot in anger while deployed, and of those who do, many of them will never know the result. Then, there are those who know that they did in fact kill. They may be eager to share and relish the opportunity to talk about it in living color and in great detail. Or, and as the trope begs us to do, there are those who will demure to the question because it is somehow inappropriate to talk about it. The act of killing is supposed to be deeply personal, regardless of how intimate or impersonal the actual act may have been. Whether the act excites your or repulses you, the only socially acceptable response is deflection.
I’m of the mind that as a group (veterans), we do a disservice to ourselves by closing ourselves off and telling people what they can and cannot say to or about us. That is exactly what we do, though. If everyone calls us heroes, we raise opposition and say no, not all of us are heroes. If the media paints us as rage-induced, PTSD-fueled ticking time bombs, we push back and say “not all veterans.” On the issue of “the question” we say it is innapropriate to ask. All of this policing of what is appropriate and what is not fuels the chasm called the civilian-military divide that we love to regurgitate into. My take on it is that the divide is an imagined structure that exists only in the military mind, because your average citizen does not spend much time in his den pontificating on how distant he feels from his military (nor should he).
All this, and the fact that it is only through “serious talk” that veterans truly come to terms with their service. Boozy reunions and war stories make for a good time, but do nothing for the psyche. If someone wants to ask if you ever killed someone, maybe we should just answer the question and let them deal with the consequences. By infusing that question – which is only a natural one to ask – with the power that we do robs us of our ability to think and act for ourselves, instead allowing our reaction to be guided by how we’re told we’re supposed to react. Let’s just get over it.
The other night I saw a skit on the Amy Schumer show that was pretty funny and got me thinking. Amy played a soldier who had just returned from an Iraq deployment and wanted to surprise her boyfriend by popping out of a cake for his birthday, a lá the surprise reunion videos that have grown so popular as entertainment recently. As she hides in the cake, she overhears him talking shit about her. She listens and takes it all in. When she pops out, she’s embarrassed and breaks up with him on the spot. As the scene ends, someone awkwardly “thanks her for her service,” because that’s what you’re supposed to do. A special kind of “fuck you” that soldiers have heard when they’re being helped by someone that can’t really help, and get thanked for their service when what they really need is to get their cell service terminated before deploying.
Anyway, it’s a pretty funny skit and it got me thinking that maybe the civil-military divide isn’t really that big of a problem as people think it is. In fact, maybe these wars have been the best thing for closing it.
The “divide” isn’t a new thing by any means. It’s been written about by every generation going back to Sparta. I still think the best recent piece on the divide in our era comes before the Global War on Terrorism began, back in this Tom Ricks article in The Atlantic (1997).
I’ve written before about how there seems to be a correlation between willingness to poke fun at the military in popular culture and a perceived decrease in the civil-military divide. That is, the more comfortable civilians feel making fun of soldiers and the military, the better relations are (so long as military folk don’t get too butt-hurt about it).
As far as I know, Amy Schumer never served in the military, but that didn’t stop her for going for the skit. I’ve seen it done real well on Family Guy, The Onion and Fox’s short-lived Enlisted (rest in peace).
I still believe that the civil-military gap is an imagined structure of the military mind. The gap is as big as the veteran wants it to be simply because civilians don’t walk around thinking of themselves as something different from everyone else – veterans do that. In that regard, the more connected to civil society the veteran feels, the smaller the imagined gap. It is an individual effort to close it, not a collective one.
That said, the more shots taken at military life from the civilian side, the more normalized the whole thing becomes. The wars have kept the military in the media for the past decade in a way they wouldn’t have been without them. We seem to be moving past the point of blanket hero worship and into a realm that’s more thoughtful and critical.
I saw this video a couple of days ago and it’s starting to pick up steam. As I’ve written about in the past, I’m of the belief that the much vaunted “civilian-military divide” is a thing only as much as military people think it’s a thing. Civilians don’t sit around thinking about how disconnected from the military they are. We do that.
But, videos like this contribute to military people sitting there, incredulously, mouth agape, swearing that they don’t understand the society from which they came.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that more than any other military personality, Gen. Petraeus has received a disproportionate amount of hate.
It began with the “General Betray Us” ad in 2007 when he was testifying before Congress about the need to “surge” in Iraq.
When I was still a CUNY student at the City College of New York, I attended a talk given by Gen. Petraeus at the 92nd Street Y – not exactly an imperialist think-tank. I arrived early, and there were a handful of protestors outside, waving signs that called Gen. Petraeus a war criminal. The protestors heckled anyone who stepped inside, asking why we’d want to hear a man like that say anything.
General/Ambassador Eikenberry was up on stage, introducing Gen. Petraeus, who was walking up to the podium. As he read through the laundry list of the General’s accomplishments, he was using a mnemonic of “He was the Commander of forces in Iraq, then he was the Commander of….he was…” Right as he said another “He was” a protestor who had “infiltrated” (bought a ticket) jumped up and screamed “A WAR CRIMINAL! HE’S A WAR CRIMINAL! YOU’RE A WAR CRIMINAL!”
The room gasped and some people tried to shush or shame the protestor. Gen. Eikenberry waited for the person to be removed, which took an awkwardly long time. Gen. Petraeus held his hand to his eyes, shielding them from the light to try to see who it was.
The protestor was removed and the Gen. made an off the cuff remark about the protestor that made everyone laugh. I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t offensive. It was making fun of himself if I remember correctly.
A couple of years later, I was in London for graduate school. In a small classroom, I sat with a handful of very bright students waiting for our professor of Middle East anthropology. We had just read an article critical about the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some quotes from General Petraeus were in it. I listened in on a conversation happening next to me between two students, one from the UK and one from Italy:
Italian Student: “You know, I have to admit, I kind of had to respect General Petraeus when I read that he has a PhD from Princeton.”
UK Student: “Oh please, the Nazis were highly educated too.”
My jaw literally dropped a bit and I had to bite my cheek not to flip my desk. Both statements offended me. I didn’t say anything. It is terribly awkward to be the grizzled Army veteran in a Middle East studies class. And once that cat is out of the bag, it doesn’t go back in.
The Italian student’s statement offended me because buried inside of it is the idea that having any kind of respect for General Petraeus because of his military service or character is unfathomable. But because he got a PhD from Princeton, now it’s okay. That kind of a statement just fuels the idea that there is this academic elite who can only respect and understand people who have their noses buried in a book.
The UK student’s statement offended me for obvious reasons.
And now, of course, we have the video above, which I’m particularly embarrassed about as a CUNY graduate. I’m all for protest and free speech. And CUNY is a special university that has a rich history of being at the very least – skeptical – of the military. But I think that this trend of hate towards P4 is indicative of just how skewed the public is about the military.
Inside of the military, General Petraeus was a legend living in his own time. For most of us, he really only appeared on our radar after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom when he lead the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and settled in Mosul. From there, he was relentless and lead MNSTCI, which was charged with training Iraqi forces, then commanded the Combined Arms Center where he worked at writing (with others) the Counterinsurgency Manual. Then commanding forces in Iraq for the surge, CENTCOM Commander, then the odd promotion/demotion to commanding forces in Afghanistan after Gen. McChrystal was fired. Retirement, then Director of the CIA before his personal scandal had him retiring from that.
A storied career. weaved inside of all that is a ton of media which got him on the front page of a bunch of magazines and on television dozens and dozens of times. He became “the” General that everyone knew.
Soldiers, however, know the rest of the story from people who served with him. How he was an avid runner and athlete, and didn’t believe in weight training – just good old fashioned Army physical training. How when he commanded a Brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division, he had a physical fitness challenge for the paratroopers that no one could beat him in. How he was accidentally shot on a training range. And of course, his relentless, un-ending energy.
There was nothing bad to say about the guy. He was loved. One of the good guys.
But anti-war activists seized on General Petraeus as the target of their discontent. He became the poster boy for anti-war. For military people watching, it didn’t make any sense. Why Petraeus?
My theory is because it’s the only General they know. The media windstorm surrounding him (and which he helped stir) means that he is the General, and with it comes the good and the bad.
For the military and veteran communities, though, all we see is a bunch of self-righteous kids egging one of one our heroes. Without a good understanding of how this all happened, it is very easy to slip into a general hate for the protestors specifically and the society generally that promotes it. That’s not good.
Like I said, “closing the gap” on the civilian-military divide is only a real thing inasmuch as military people are willing to do so. But, admittedly, this crap doesn’t help.