Veterans Have an Image Problem

By Colonel Mark Cancian, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

• In Redacted (2007), emotionally damaged soldiers rape and murder Iraqi civilians.

• In Lions for Lambs (2007), two college students volunteer to join the Army and are killed in a botched mission in Afghanistan. Back home, a senator advocates the kind of missions that got the two soldiers killed.

• In In the Valley of Elah (2007), an emotionally damaged soldier returns home and is killed by other emotionally damaged soldiers.

• “Doonesbury,” the nationally-syndicated comic strip by Garry Trudeau, has several veteran characters: “Toggle” is badly injured, suffers from expressive aphasia and is cared for, and patronized, by his contemporaries. “B.D.” has lost a leg. “Melissa” was raped and traumatized in theater. “Ray” is mentally unbalanced from six deployments. Almost all have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These depictions were picked up by the press in its presentation of the news. Stories about veterans with problems vastly outnumber positive stories. For example, over the course of 2011, The Washington Post ran about 40 stories on veterans. All focused on valid news, but most presented decidedly negative images—PTSD, homelessness, unemployment. The few positive stories concerned the awarding of the Medal of Honor or had some political connection. 2

Finally, it became the major theme of civilian and military officials, perhaps in response to perceptions that they had not responded adequately to veterans’ needs in the early years of war. For example, congressional statements by the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and all the service chiefs pay tribute to the sacrifices of the troops and veterans but focus on stress, injuries, and suicides.

The nation seems to be heading down the same path it did after the Vietnam War, which had its own narrative of psychologically damaged veterans, service-member misconduct, and victimization, in movies such as The Deer Hunter (or Taxi Driver or Born on the Fourth of July ) or in novels like Going After Cacciato . Veterans of that war have typically been portrayed as scruffy, damaged individuals in old camouflage uniforms, a phenomenon described, and criticized, by B. G. Burkett in his classic study, Stolen Valor . 3

The Reality

The reality, of course, is different. Most post-9/11 veterans are proud of their service (96 percent), feel they became more mature (93 percent) and gained self-confidence (90 percent). 4 These veterans are moving into positions of prominence; eight have been elected to Congress. Reenlistment rates for combat veterans still on active duty are at an all-time high, reflecting not just a bad economy but also an endorsement of service. A 2010 Gallup study found that “Active-duty military who have been deployed are as likely to rate their lives well enough to be considered ‘thriving’ as those who have not deployed. Both groups are significantly more likely to be thriving than are American workers overall.” 5 Although combat is an intense experience, most veterans readjust successfully to civilian life.

Further, the military has become the most trusted institution in America, besting even religious groups. It far surpasses other government agencies, journalism, and business. Trust in it has actually increased during the current conflicts. 6

Why, then, did this negative image arise? That some warriors have adjustment problems because of their military service is a very old story. Homer’s Achilles, sulking in his tent, is arguably suffering from combat fatigue as well as hubris. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus returns “from weary wars . . . laden with horror’s spoils” and sets off an orgy of revenge killings and mutilations. In our own history such concerns have been common. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), for example, depicts the difficulties of three veterans as they return home after World War II. But even that depiction of postwar difficulties ends in hope, and in general World War II veterans have been portrayed positively. How, then, did negative images become so dominant about today’s veterans?

The answers are several. Certainly some veterans do have real problems:

• The unemployment rate among veterans is high: 12.7 percent in May 2012 for those who joined the military after 9/11, compared with 8.2 percent for the general population.

• Many combat veterans suffer psychological damage, with rates of PTSD ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent, depending on the study. 7

• Suicide rates for young veterans are higher than for non-veterans.

Suicides among active-duty Army and Marine Corps troops (but not Navy or Air Force) have risen from half the equivalent civilian rate to just over the civilian rate. 8 But these real problems are insufficient to explain why a negative image became so dominant. Service in World War II was more violent and, for the individual called up for the duration, longer. Damage to individuals had to be greater. Yet the dominant view of World War II veterans has been consistently positive—the well-adjusted warrior who returned home to marry the girl he left behind, work productively, and raise a family.

One reason may be that few Americans have direct experience with the military anymore. Only 7 percent of the population are veterans and that proportion has been dropping year-by-year as the World War II and Korean War veterans pass away. Half of all veterans are now over 60. In an earlier era, when large numbers of the population had contact with the military, people had a personal reference with which to measure both the good and bad aspects of military service. Now most people must get their information through the various media. Thus, if a majority of stories depict veterans as damaged by their service, then that’s what veterans are to most Americans.

Opposition to the wars has driven some of the negativity. Particularly during the Bush administration, focusing on the problems of veterans was a way to express opposition to the wars, especially the war in Iraq. In effect, the narrator was saying that the costs of the wars were too great and that, as a result, the policy was flawed. The wars’ lack of clear victory, as in Vietnam, certainly contributes to a sense of failure that inevitably rubs off on those directly involved.

Contemporary culture is more comfortable with victims than heroes, a phenomenon long observed. 9 Heroes have repeatedly shown their weak side—athletes abuse drugs, entertainers abuse sex, and politicians abuse power. Victimization, on the other hand, attracts attention, sympathy, and frequently, society’s resources. This society-wide narrative then carries over to veterans; heroism is downplayed because no hero is perfect while victimization gets attention.

Some writers have suggested a deeper social basis: guilt and class. In his novel A Country Such As This , now-Senator James Webb (D-VA) portrayed hostility toward service members as a combination of guilt about not serving and class disdain. The guilt arose from not having faced hardship and danger. The class disdain reflected “the people of books and pep clubs and prom committees” looking down on “the blue collar kids, the red-necks.” 10 Webb was not alone, as many others articulated similar views. Journalist James Fallows wrote about the other side, “a generalized shame” of those who dodged the draft and left the fighting to others. 11

In the current conflicts outright hostility is fortunately rare, reflecting a maturing of American politics and an ability to separate the warrior from the war. Nevertheless, some current negative portrayals of veterans may have elements of the same coping mechanism that Webb and Fallows described—their provision of a socially acceptable rationale for not having served, and the more negative the portrayal of veterans, the stronger the rationale.

Does It Matter?

Many veterans, particularly older ones, might be inclined to ignore these negative images, believing that the public understands the value of military service—that in general it builds character, maturity, and skills and that most veterans are better people as a result. These veterans would be wrong, however. As noted earlier, most Americans today have no personal reference point about the military and have to rely on publicly available images to form their opinions.

The negative images directly affect the lives of veterans because they turn a military experience that should be a positive item on a résumé into a negative that must be explained. Consider job hunting. Few human-resources specialists have military contacts, so they absorb the prevailing narrative of veterans having severe mental and physical problems. Not surprisingly, this colors their hiring practices. Many veterans relate stories about being asked, indirectly and subtly because discrimination against veterans is illegal, whether they have been damaged by their service and can function in a demanding job. As one veteran lamented, “People just frown on us nowadays, thinking we’re all flying-off-the-handle crazy guys.” 12 Ine one major study, half of employers expressed reservations about hiring veterans because of concerns about PTSD. 13 No one can know how many veterans failed to get jobs because the people hiring were afraid that the veteran might become a problem employee. Why should a human-resources department take a chance when there are so many other applicants? As one employer said, “Some guys come back from the war with all sorts of issues. . . . Honestly, I think twice before I hire them.” 14

Colleges have shown the same concerns. In 2009 Pennsylvania State University distributed a video to its guidance counselors on dealing with the violent and maladjusted veteran. Although quickly pulled because of the intense criticism it generated, the video seemed to imply that this was a typical experience with veterans.

The power of this narrative was also seen in the immediate aftermath of the Fort Hood shootings in November 2009. Most commentators initially speculated that combat stress caused the shooter to “snap” and kill 13 of his fellow soldiers. This explanation reflected an assumption that all combat veterans carry within them the seeds of irrational violence. It lingered even after investigations revealed that the shooter had never deployed and had long shown radical Islamic tendencies. 15

What to Do?

Images can change. The 1990s saw several violent actions involving postal workers. Those incidents received a lot of attention, and “going postal” entered the language to mean becoming unexpectedly and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence. In response, the U.S. Postal Service took some reasonable precautionary measures, instituted appropriate training, emphasized that those were isolated incidents, and highlighted the many accomplishments of its employees. The phrase effectively died away. It’s time to begin that process for our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Veterans groups and other advocates should be careful about how they argue for programs and support. Too much focus on damage, failure, and the burdens of multiple tours inadvertently creates a one-sided image. These groups might learn from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the way it portrays its community. On one hand AARP advocates vigorously for programs and benefits, pointing out the support that some older Americans need. On the other hand it portrays older Americans as active, engaged, and competent. AARP does this intentionally, knowing that a negative image could easily arise from existing stereotypes about aging.

Government and military officials might give more attention to the positive aspects of military service. The Army’s initial research in this area shows that many people emerge from traumatic experiences with greater self-confidence. As retired Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, director of the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, noted: “We never ask if anybody had some positive outcomes. We only ask about this laundry list of illnesses.” 16 There is, in addition, a wealth of information about heroic acts that occur every day, not just the occasional act that results in a Medal of Honor. Similarly positive is first lady Michelle Obama’s effort to promote the value of veterans as employees who have learned “to quickly adapt . . . [to] find creative solutions to problems, and to fight through anything that comes their way.” 17

The military press and professional journals have made useful contributions. The journal of the Military Officers Association of America, Military Officer , has regular stories, sometime humorous, about how incidents in an officer’s career helped them to grow (“Lessons Learned” and “Encore”).

The mainstream press has also had some positive stories. Time magazine ran a feature article called “The New Greatest Generation” that described successful veterans of the recent wars and the contributions they were making, in contrast with Time ’s other recent articles on veterans, which focused on negative aspects (e.g., a homicidal/suicidal National Guardsman, traumatized female veterans, and violent/psychologically damaged veterans). 18 Some stories show nuance. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about a veteran who committed a classic murder/suicide but noted that the reasons were likely personal and not connected with his military service. Both the positive stories and the nuance should be encouraged. Further, elements of the mainstream press are showing some self-awareness. A major Washington Post article noted the tension between supportive sympathy and “casting [veterans] as hapless victims.” 19

The entertainment industry might want to change its perspective, too, if only to make money. The track record indicates that apolitical movies with a positive, or at least respectful, view of service members do better financially and artistically than negatively themed movies. For example, The Hurt Locker , a film about an explosive-ordnance-disposal team in Iraq, won Oscars for best picture and best director and made a lot of money. The movie said nothing about the war’s broader politics but instead focused on soldiers doing a dangerous and difficult job with skill and courage. In contrast, The Green Zone , released at the same time, depicted the war as a dark conspiracy, foisted by cynical politicians onto soldiers who were its hapless victims. It received no major awards and tanked at the box office.

The point of developing a new image of veterans is not to whitewash bad experiences or to hide the costs of war. The point is to provide balance. We have been inundated with reminders of the costs and sacrifices, and these are real. A combat tour is a deeply emotional experience that takes time to assimilate, but most veterans do so successfully, some on their own, others with professional help. Veterans may be different for their experience, but they are not damaged. There is, further, a positive side that World War II veterans especially have highlighted with their unit associations and reunions: the satisfaction of overcoming hardship, the comradeship of shared sacrifice, the excitement of having for a brief moment been on the front stage of history, and the pride in serving a higher cause. Balance in the depiction of veterans would not only help veterans in their post-service lives but would be more truthful, as well.

1. “Murders”—Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez, “War Torn: Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles,“ The New York Times 13 January 2008, later shown to be based on inaccurate statistics; “Suicidal”—Many references, perhaps initiated by a 13 November 2007 CBS report, “Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans,” later criticized for using exaggerated statistics; “Homeless”—Many reports. One of the first was Erik Eckholm, “Surge Seen in Number of Homeless Veterans,” The New York Times , 8 November 2007, based on a report by a homelessness advocacy group, National Alliance to End Homelessness; “Violent”— An example of the general tone is Luke Mogelson, “A Beast in the Heart of Every Fighting Man,” The New York Times Magazine , 1 May 2011. A specific example is Kevin Johnson, “Police Get Help with Vets Who Are Ticking Bombs,” USA Today, 26 January 2012.

2. Search of articles in The Washington Post for 2011: Forty-one articles concerned combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan: 22 with negative images, 7 with positive, 12 neutral (usually dealing with bureaucratic problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs).

3. B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley, Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History (Dallas: Verity Press, 1998), for example, 44-45.

4. Pew Research Center, The Military-Civilian Gap: War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era , 5 October 2011. This excellent report, however, suffers from a small sample size (382) of combat veterans.

5. Gallup poll, 14 July 2010, using Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

6. Gallup poll,

7. Terri Tanielian and Lisa Jaycox, eds., Invisible Wounds of War , RAND, 2008, 55.

8. “Suicide Rate Among Young Veterans Soars,” CBS News, 11 January 2010; Army Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, Suicide Prevention Report 2010 , U.S. Army, July 2010.

9. For application to the military, see, for example, Robert Kaplan, “Modern Heroes,” The Wall Street Journal , 4 October 2007.

10. James Webb, A Country Such as This , (New York: Doubleday, 1983).

11. James Fallows, “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” Washington Monthly , October 1975.

12. Gregg Zoroya, “Jobless Rate Hits 11.2% For Veterans,” USA Today , 20 March 2009.

13. Margaret C. Herrell and Nancy Berglass, “Employing America’s Veterans: Perspectives from Business,” Center for a New American Security, 11 June 2012.

14. Jonathan Raab, “Wanted: A Good Job and Some Understanding,” The New York Times , 16 August 2011.

15. For example, Anna Mulrine, “Looking For Answers,” U.S. News Weekly , 13 November 2009, more than a week after the shooting.

16. Cited in “Combat’s Positive Effects Examined,” USA Today , 19 October 2009.

17. Michelle Obama, “How the Military Boosts the Bottom Line,” U.S. News Weekly , 28 July 2011.

18. For example: Mark Thompson, “A Soldier’s Tragedy,” Time , 2 April 2011; Laura Fitzpatrick, “How We’re Failing Female Veterans,” Time , 30 June 2010; Tim McGirk, “How One Army Town Copes with PTSD,” Time , 30 November 2009.

19. Greg Jaffee, “For Troops, Being Pitied Is Tough to Take,” The Washington Post , 15 November 2011.

Colonel Cancian works in Washington, D.C., and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings . He has written extensively on strategy, manpower, and budgets. He served 33 years in the Marine Corps, active-duty and reserve, including Operation Desert Storm and two tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom.


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