General Douglas MacArthur was adamant: He wanted to revive George Washington’s purple heart-shaped Badge of Military Merit to honor the original Commander in Chief on his bicentenary. Above all, MacArthur wanted the medal “to animate and inspire the living.” What he didn’t want was to make it “a symbol of death, with its corollary depressive influences.” Army heraldic specialist Elizabeth Will took note. When she designed the new Purple Heart Medal, Will included Washington’s profile and family coat of arms but left off the Washington motto: Exitus Acta Probat. The medal itself was to be its proof—The Outcome is the Test of the Act.
MacArthur and the War Department wanted an official way to celebrate “persons who…perform[ed] any singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service” to the nation, post World War I. That echoed Washington’s intent, as he’d realized the importance to the fledging democratic experiment of an official military commendation, which had nothing to do with rank and had everything to do with individual merit expressed in service for the common good. For Washington, blood shed was not a necessary part of the merit equation. For MacArthur, blood also ranked low, as a parenthetical, in his General Orders No. 3. Only under certain detailed circumstances would “a wound… be construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service.”
And yet not a hundred years removed from MacArthur’s revival of the Purple Heart, thanks to a swirl of changing social mores, advanced medical science, partisan activists, and congressional legislation, what the American public most identifies with the Purple Heart Medal is wounds or death suffered during military service. Beyond any valor represented by the medal, what most seems to have caught the public imagination over the last few decades is the wounds potentially suffered by combat veterans. And because significant portions of the public don’t realize that combat veterans represent a small minority of veterans—that only around ten percent of the roughly twenty to forty percent of soldiers ever deployed even see combat—Americans today seem reflexively to believe that veterans are psychologically and thus medically damaged by their military service, even while they put them on a pedestal for their service.
While no doubt unintentional, what American society seems to have done over time in emphasizing the medical image of the veteran, is to have completely politicized that veteran image.
The Veterans and Politics Problem
Historians and politicos of yore have called it the “suffering soldier” phenomenon, or sometimes, “waving the bloody shirt.” (Updated to what we’re currently more familiar with, we might call it “invoking the retired officers’ endorsements.”) But we might as well call it the veterans and politics problem. This problem isn’t the civil-military one that characterized the 2020 election cycle and that’s occasionally popped up previously. The veterans problem is that from the beginning of our polity American society’s view of soldiers has been shaped by politics, and the politics surrounding soldiers and veterans has been primarily shaped by emotion, with three predominating: charity or philanthropy, fear, and honor. And fueling it all is a complex mixture of gratitude and a sense of justice.
Before it even was a nation, colonies in America made sure to reserve public funds for combat veterans, like Plymouth Colony did in 1636 when it provided money to those disabled in its defense. Originally, veterans’ benefits were created on an ad hoc basis, and veterans received quite different benefits based upon the economic and political climate of the time. The crippling cost of Civil War veterans’ benefits and the perpetually scandal-plagued administration of them cooled the public’s ardor in the lead-up to World War I. It colored the creation in 1917 of a new veterans benefits and disability compensation system, most notably in Congress’ choice to describe benefits as “compensation.” “Pension” implied generosity, an emotion-fuelled gesture not subject to any limiting principle. “Compensation” on the other hand implied payment for a loss, which the drafters believed could be measured and controlled, and thus (they thought) cost overruns prevented.
The 1917 veterans benefits system is the system that the Department of Veterans Affairs uses today, groaning under the weight of an enormously expanded set of veterans benefits haphazardly added on after a century’s worth of wars, all reflecting changing (and often conflicting) views of individual rights, government benefits, economics, and military service. Richard Levy has written out a helpful explainer of the contemporary conflagration resulting from the dynamics at work in these benefits—something he calls the “uneasy mixture of two basic models of government benefits,” the charitable and the social insurance models.
In the charity model, “whatever moral obligation the nation may owe its veterans, the fulfillment of that responsibility is, from a legal perspective, a voluntary undertaking.” The charity model prevailed for a significant portion of American history, including during the time the veterans benefit system emerged. The creation of Social Security, Welfare, and Medicare decades later signaled a different understanding of government benefits, what we commonly call entitlements, and which Levy calls the “social insurance model” of benefits. Levy writes that in this latter model, “benefits are a form of social contract through which the government uses its taxing and spending powers to spread the costs of old age, disability, unemployment, and poverty.”
In the expansion of modern veterans benefits to include now housing insurance and fertility treatments, we can see the social insurance model in play, along with the charity model. The dual motivations of gratitude and a just repayment of a debt behind those two models are not difficult to discern. But the range of benefits the contemporary veteran can qualify for is so expansive that the veteran’s relationship with the VA may be the most important relationship in her post-service life. The VA can define who, as a veteran, she is in her own mind—whether disabled, because she receives a check for such, or not. And in its capacity as the second largest federal agency and the most visible public expression of the nation’s gratitude towards its veterans, the VA certainly shapes the American public’s expectations and understanding of who the veteran is.
Society’s medicalized perception of the veteran is further reemphasized, as James D. Ridgeway has noted, by veterans service organizations frequently lobbying for all benefits as compensation that is owed the veteran, as their right. But in fact, the “wounded warrior” is the centerpiece of veterans’ legislation in the 21st century not only because medical care is its historical root, but also because stakeholders and legislators have learned that highlighting the “brokenness” of veterans is the most effective mechanism to move legislation through Congress.
In 1980, Harris and Associates explicitly recommended this tactic to legislators even while noting its risky downsides for the public image of the actual veterans. That Congress liked the recommendation and paid no attention to the warning seems obvious in the post-9/11 context by the frequency with which members in the House and Senate introduce suicide prevention legislation despite repeated empirical evidence that veterans’ most consistent source of stress is understanding how to navigate the veterans benefits system, and being able to secure meaningful employment.
This by no means is to make light of the statistics about veteran and military suicides. But at what point does holding one single perspective distort the truth of a photograph or a profession, a person or a phenomenon?
Framing Military Service, and Sacrifice
Should the veteran disappear behind the significance of his wounds, because those wounds show both what is the blood price of the nation’s foreign adventures and also reveal something about his personhood and character? Or should the whole person of the veteran predominate, even if that means sometimes deemphasizing the wounds? Does a veteran not matter if she has no wounds? Any wound represents real suffering. Yet in and of itself, a wound is an amoral thing. The circumstances around receiving the wound are not, and it’s those that we’ve traditionally looked to to clarify the ambiguities of the wound. Perhaps this is why General Washington and later General MacArthur deemphasized the importance of the wound in relation to the quality of the soldier’s act of service. Society can easily evaluate wounds from two opposing perspectives: They can be received by a passive subject, which verbally anyway renders the wounded individual as a victim— “these wounds senselessly happened to her.” But a soldier can receive wounds as a byproduct of a combination of circumstance and her own, out-of-the-ordinary courageous choice to answer that circumstance— “this soldier was wounded in the course of duty.” However much the wound still happened to her, she consciously chose to bear it so that her companions would not. It’s a matter of character. But in our shorthand mass media society, we’ve seemed to elide the character of the soldier and of the circumstances to the mere fact of the wound. And while this might not normally be problematic outside of sophistic moral philosophy debates, our societal obsession with the shorthand image of the complex civil-military democratic relationship—the wound—in fact has made the wounded veteran easily exploitable in partisan political terms ever since the social, partisan upheavals sparked by participating in the Vietnam War.
Thanks to the Vietnam War and the reactions it sparked to all things war related, for half a century what all political parties have effectively done is to disappear veterans behind their visible and invisible wounds, as a proxy front for partisan battles about the legitimacy of war as a tool of national security. A complete politicization of the veteran image has taken hold; as an intended and an unintended consequence of the intense public focus on veterans’ physical and mental health coming out of the Vietnam War, when aspects of veterans health were explicitly invoked in partisan pro- and antiwar arguments.
By the time the American Psychiatric Association included post-traumatic stress disorder in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, PTSD and mental health were already lightning rods of political sentiment. Antiwar liberals Robert Jay Lifton and Chaim Shatan’s “rap groups” with veterans in the New York office of Vietnam Veterans Against the War had fuelled their psychiatric research, and their writing about it in outlets such as the New York Times had caught the attention of Democratic Senators Vance Harke and Alan Cranston, both fiercely antiwar veterans themselves. Senators Harke and Cranston were the first two Chairmen of the newly formed Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs between 1971-1981, and while both were genuinely concerned about winning wide recognition for the medical science of PTSD and mental health care more generally, they explicitly crafted congressional hearings in order for the PTSD issue to be the mechanism translating their antiwar leanings into policy outcomes. Cranston especially did not shrink from outright politicizing veteran mental health issues in the Senate.
The legacy of this approach, as Jerry Lembcke acknowledges in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam is that the institutional recognition of PTSD had the unfortunate effect of medicalizing antiwar resistance among veterans; of, as he writes, reframing “badness” as “madness.” Given the partisan antiwar doula that helped birth the public recognition of veteran mental health challenges, is it a surprise that the more traditional model of unquestioning patriotic, dutiful soldier and patriotic military-supporting families that had predominated until this moment couldn’t see the newly-developing medical science for the political bathwater? Hence, at least up until the completion of Operation Desert Storm, if not the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks, there was a perceived conservative or Republican Party political reaction towards the veteran mental health narrative as well as the patriotism of (especially veteran) antiwar activists. In turn, this conservative reaction caused its own liberal or Democratic Party counter-reaction, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, when accounts condemning American POW/MIA rhetoric as false narratives began to proliferate, as well as books questioning the historical veracity of the “spat upon Vietnam War Vet” narrative.
Nearly twenty years into the Global War on Terror, American society, the military, and veterans’ organizations have made marked progress towards accepting the medical realties of mental health underneath any partisan politics. At the same time, the real horror that American society in general has come to articulate at even seeming to be opposed to the troops has both fuelled and fed off of a certain politization of the veteran. To an extent, it might explain our aversion to talking seriously about veterans issues. But at what cost to the veteran, to the military, and to civil society was the veteran’s (especially mental) health originally politicized? Not only for its part in producing the broken veteran/trauma hero narrative, but in limiting the willingness of politically and otherwise diverse young adults to consider joining the military as a legitimate career option, or otherwise to engage in public service? As reported pronouncements from America’s 45th Commander in Chief about wounded soldiers seem to evidence, that cost is still accruing, and not just electorally. Meanwhile, there seems to be no study that tries to understand the long social ramifications of having doubled down on politicizing the image of the veteran nearly fifty years ago, and just as the All-Volunteer Force was coming into being, in need of a willing public to understand it, support it, and join its ranks.
Over fifty years after the Vietnam War and nearly twenty years into The Global War on Terror, our unease has grown. We find it difficult to seriously confront or analyze the meaning and status of the military veteran in contemporary American society. The distinct memory of previous neglect of care hushes many from voicing a critique of the current status quo of the medicalized veteran image, as does a (legitimate) worry of appearing to devalue an individual soldier’s personal sacrifice, valor, and character. After all, the cultural power of national service awards such as the Purple Heart still resonate broadly throughout society, if confusedly, about the high value of the meritorious service of an individual willing to put his or her blood on the line. Not just anyone receives a Purple Heart Award.
But the effect of our unwillingness to have such a reckoning means that our media, our legislation, and our culture continue to popularize a stilted image of who the modern veteran is. This harms not only current veterans, but those youth who will choose never to be veterans—and in that process, the American nation as well. It leaves the veteran to be no more than a image of what one perspective we emotionally choose on a random day to see of their scars, their service, their medals, or their political convenience.