Year of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Virginia Blum
More than 2.6 million troops have deployed in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, surveys reveal that more than half feel “disconnected” from their civilian counterparts, and this feeling persists despite ongoing efforts, in the academy and elsewhere, to help returning veterans overcome physical and mental wounds, seek an education, and find meaningful ways to contribute to society after taking off the uniform. This dissertation argues that Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans struggle with reassimilation because they lack healthy, complete models of veteran identity to draw upon in their postwar lives, a problem they’re working through collectively in literature and artwork.
The war veteran—returning home transformed by the harsh realities of military training and service, having seen humanity at its extremes, and interacting with a society apathetic toward his or her experiences—should engage in the act of storytelling. This act of sharing experiences and crafting-self subverts stereotypes. Storytelling, whether in a book read by millions, or in a single conversation with a close family member, should instruct civilians on the topic of human resiliency; it should instruct veterans on the topic of homecoming. But typically, veterans do not tell stories. Civilians create barriers to storytelling in the form of hollow platitudes—“thank you for your service” or “I can never understand what you’ve been through”—disconnected from the meaning of wartime service itself. The dissonance between veteran and civilian only becomes more complicated when one considers the implicit demands and expectations attached to patriotism. These often well-intentioned gestures and government programs fail to convey a message of appreciation because they refuse to convey a message of acceptance; the exceptional treatment of veterans by larger society implies also that they are insufficient, broken, or incomplete. So, many veterans chose conformity and silence, adopting one of two identities available to them: the forever pitied “Wounded Warrior” or the superficially praised “Hero.” These identities are not complete. They’re not even identities as much as they are collections of rumors, misrepresentations, and expectations of conformity. Once an individual veteran begins unconsciously performing the “Wounded Warrior” or “Hero” character, the number of potential outcomes available in that individual’s life is severely diminished. Society reinforces a feeling among veterans that they are “different.” This shared experience has resulted in commiseration, camaraderie, and also the proliferation of veterans’ creative communities. As storytellers, the members of these communities are restoring meaning to veteran-civilian discourse by privileging the nuanced experiences of the individual over stereotypes and emotionless rhetoric. They are instructing on the topics of war and homecoming, producing fictional and nonfictional representations of the veteran capable of competing with stereotypes, capable of reassimilation.
The Introduction establishes the existence of veteran culture, deconstructs notions of there being a single or binary set of veteran identities, and critiques the social and cultural rhetoric used to maintain symbolic boundaries between veterans and civilians. It begins by establishing an approach rooted in interdisciplinary literary theory, taking veteran identity as its topic of consideration and the American unconscious as the text it seeks to examine, asking readers to suspend belief in patriotic rhetoric long enough to critically examine veteran identity as an apparatus used to sell war to each generation of new recruits. Patriotism, beyond the well-meaning gestures and entitlements afforded to veterans, also results in feelings of “difference,” in the veteran feeling apart from larger society. The inescapability of veteran “difference” is a trait which sets it apart from other cultures, and it is one bolstered by inaccurate and, at times, offensive portrayals of veterans in mass media and Hollywood films such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), First Blood (1982), or Taxi Driver (1976). To understand this inescapability the chapter engages with theories of race, discussing the Korean War veteran in Home (2012) and other works by Toni Morrison to directly and indirectly explore descriptions of “difference” by African Americans and “others” not in positions of power. From there, the chapter traces veteran identity back to the Italian renaissance, arguing that modern notions of veteran identity are founded upon fears of returning veterans causing chaos and disorder. At the same time, writers such as Sebastian Junger, who are intimately familiar with veteran culture, repeatedly emphasize the camaraderie and “tribal” bonds found among members of the military, and instead of creating symbolic categories in which veterans might exist exceptionally as “Heroes,” or pitied as “Wounded Warriors,” the chapter argues that the altruistic nature which leads recruits to war, their capabilities as leaders and educators, and the need of larger society for examples of human resiliency are more appropriate starting points for establishing veteran identity.
The Introduction is followed by an independent “Example” section, a brief examination of a student veteran named “Bingo,” one who demonstrates an ability to challenge, even employ veteran stereotypes to maintain his right to self-definition. Bingo’s story, as told in a “spotlight” article meant to attract student veterans to a college campus, portrays the veteran as a “Wounded Warrior” who overcomes mental illness and the scars of war through education, emerging as an exceptional example—a “Hero”—that other student veterans can model by enrolling at the school. Bingo’s story sets the stage for close examinations of the “Hero” and the “Wounded Warrior” in the first and second chapters.
Chapter One deconstructs notions of heroism, primarily the belief that all veterans are “Heroes.” The chapter examines military training and indoctrination, Medal of Honor award citations, and film examples such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Heroes for Sale (1933), Sergeant York (1941), and Top Gun (1986) to distinguish between actual feats of heroism and “Heroes” as they are presented in patriotic rhetoric. The chapter provides the Medal of Honor citations attached to awards presented to Donald Cook, Dakota Meyer, and Kyle Carpenter, examining the postwar lives of Meyer and Carpenter, identifying attempts by media and government officials to appropriate heroism—to steal the right to self-definition possessed by these men. Among these Medal of Honor recipients one finds two types of heroism: Sacrificing Heroes give something of themselves to protect others; Attacking Heroes make a difference during battle offensively. Enduring Heroes, the third type of heroism discussed in the chapter, are a new construct. Colloquially, and for all intents and purposes, an Enduring Hero is simply a veteran who enjoys praise and few questions. Importantly, veterans enjoy the “Hero Treatment” in exchange for silence and conforming to larger narratives which obfuscate past wars and pave the way for new ones. This chapter engages with theorists of gender—such as Jack Judith Halberstam, whose Female Masculinities (1998) anticipates the agency increasingly available to women through military service; like Leo Braudy, whose From Chivalry to Terrorism (2003) traces the historical relationship between war and gender before commenting on the evolution of military masculinity—to discuss the relationship between heroism and agency, begging a question: What do veterans have to lose from the perpetuation of stereotypes? This question frames a detailed examination of William A. Wellman’s film, Heroes for Sale (1933), in the chapter’s final section. This story of stolen valor and the Great Depression depicts the homecoming of a WWI veteran separated from his heroism. The example, when combined with a deeper understanding of the intersection between veteran identity and gender, illustrates not only the impact of stolen valor in the life of a legitimate hero, but it also comments on the destructive nature of appropriation, revealing the ways in which a veteran stereotypes rob service men and women of the right to draw upon memories of military service which complete with those stereotypes. The military “Hero” occupies a moral high ground, but most conceptions of military “Heroes” are socially constructed advertisements for war. Real heroes are much rarer. And, as the Medal of Honor recipients discussed in the chapter reveal, they, too, struggle with lifelong disabilities as well as constant attempts by society to appropriate their narratives.
Chapter Two traces the evolution of the modern “Wounded Warrior” from depictions of cowardice in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), to the denigration of World War I veterans afflicted with Shell Shock, to Kevin Powers’s Iraq War novel, The Yellow Birds (2012). As with “Heroes,” “Wounded Warriors” perform a stereotype in place of an authentic, individualized identity, and the chapter uses Walt Kowalski, the protagonist of Clint Eastwood’s film, Gran Torino (2008), as its major example. The chapter discusses “therapeutic culture,” Judith Butler’s work on identity-formation, and Eva Illouz’s examination of a culture obsessed with trauma to comment on veteran performances of victimhood. Butler’s attempts to conceive of new identities absent the influence of systems of definition rooted in the state, in particular, reveal power in the opposite of silence, begging another question: What do civilians have to gain from the perpetuation of veteran stereotypes? Largely, the chapter finds, the “Wounded Warrior” persists in the minds of civilians who fear the veteran’s capacity for violence. A broken, damaged veteran is less of a threat. The story of the “Wounded Warrior” is not one of sacrifice. The “Wounded Warrior” exists after sacrifice, beyond any measure of “honor” achieved in uniform. “Wounded Warriors” are not expected to find a cure because the wound itself is an apparatus of the state that is commodified and injected into the currency of emotional capitalism. This chapter argues that military service and a damaged psyche need not always occur together.
Following the second chapter, a close examination of “The Bear That Stands,” a short story by Suzanne S. Rancourt which confronts the author’s sexual assault while serving in the Marines, offers an alternative to both the “Hero” and the “Wounded Warrior” stereotypes. Rancourt, a veteran “Storyteller,” gives testimony of that crime, intervening in social conceptions of veteran identity to include a female perspective. As with the example of Bingo, the author demonstrates an innate ability to recognize and challenge the stereotypes discussed in the first and second chapters. This “Example” sets the stage for a more detailed examination of “Veteran Storytellers” and their communities in the final chapter.
Chapter Three looks for examples of veteran “difference,” patriotism, the “Wounded Warrior,” and the “Hero” in nonfiction, fiction, and artwork emerging from the creative arts community, Military Experience and the Arts, an organization which provides workshops, writing consultation, and publishing venues to veterans and their families. The chapter examines veteran “difference” in a short story by Bradley Johnson, “My Life as a Soldier in the ‘War on Terror.’” In “Cold Day in Bridgewater,” a work of short fiction by Jerad W. Alexander, a veteran must confront the inescapability of that difference as well as expectations of conformity from his bigoted, civilian bartender. The final section analyzes artwork by Tif Holmes and Giuseppe Pellicano, which deal with the problems of military sexual assault and the effects of war on the family, respectively. Together, Johnson, Alexander, Holmes, and Pellicano demonstrate skills in recognizing stereotypes, crafting postwar identities, and producing alternative representations of veteran identity which other veterans can then draw upon in their own homecomings.
Presently, no unified theory of veteran identity exists. This dissertation begins that discussion, treating individual performances of veteran identity, existing historical, sociological, and psychological scholarship about veterans, and cultural representations of the wars they fight as equal parts of a single text. Further, it invites future considerations of veteran identity which build upon, challenge, or refute its claims. Conversations about veteran identity are the opposite of silence; they force awareness of war’s uncomfortable truths and homecoming’s eventual triumphs. Complicating veteran identity subverts conformity; it provides a steady stream of traits, qualities, and motivations that veterans use to craft postwar selves. The serious considerations of war and homecoming presented in this text will be useful for Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans attempting to piece together postwar identities; they will be useful to scholars hoping to facilitate homecoming for future generations of war veterans. Finally, the Afterword to the dissertation proposes a program for reassimilation capable of harnessing the veteran’s symbolic and moral authority in such a way that self-definition and homecoming might become two parts of a single act.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Martin, Travis L., "A Theory of Veteran Identity" (2017). Theses and Dissertations--English. 53.
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