Chancellor Birgenau’s invitation to deliver this lecture came as a great honor to me. I am delighted to join this vibrant intellectual community for a few days—and I am humbled in knowing the distinguished individuals who have preceded me as Jefferson lecturers. Preparing for this presentation gave me an opportunity to reflect upon and understand better some activities that have engaged me over the last several years. And it provided me a chance to be a historian again! Thank you for that.
In 2005 I visited Bethesda Naval Hospital and spent time there in the ward with young Marines who had been injured in Iraq. After a few more visits to Bethesda and to Walter Reed hospitals I became more involved in helping the American Council on Education to provide educational counseling for them. These activities engaged me in turn with other related veteran programs, such as the effort to provide a stronger GI Bill.
As I encountered groups and individuals who were looking to support veterans, I was always struck by the tremendous reservoir of affection, gratitude, and support for the troops and veterans in this country. As support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan declined, support for the troops who were engaged in the wars seemed to increase. This pattern seemed sharply at odds with the Vietnam experience.
This lecture affords me the occasion to share some of my reflections and understandings about our historical treatment of veterans. In this presentation I would like to describe some of the assumptions and conflicts that frame the history of veterans’ affairs in the United States. I will summarize the historical record of support for veterans. And I will share some reflections about changes in the dominant public attitude toward war veterans, from those who served in Vietnam to the present veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
One point I would like to make at the outset—this lecture is not going to assess American foreign policy nor the causes and justifications for US wars. Nor is this a military history—at least not in a conventional sense. And finally, my focus on American war veterans and their casualties is taken fully cognizant of the fact that there are non-US casualties and that these, notably the civilian ones, need be acknowledged. War is a violent and cruel human exercise, and can often be indiscriminate in its reach.
My subject today is US war veterans—those who have served as part of a mobilized force drafted or otherwise called up for a declared or an undeclared war. For most of our history the US military has been in a peacetime state and those who have served in these forces have been volunteers. Military forces during wartime on the other hand have been conscripted, drafted or called up to duty from militia or reserve units. These have been the much-celebrated “citizen soldiers.”
Last August at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention President Obama said of the legacy of support for veterans, “America’s commitments to its veterans are not just lines in a budget. They are bonds that are sacrosanct—a sacred trust we are honor bound to uphold.” In November the United States Supreme Court seemed to affirm this commitment when it ruled in Porter v. McCollum for a new hearing for a Korean War veteran who had been convicted of a 1987 murder. The Court held that the defense had not presented evidence of the psychological state of the veteran as a result of his war experiences. The Justices noted, “Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines.”
I would defer to others to debate sacred or legal obligation. But I would suggest that the history of our relations with veterans is more complicated—less generous and more ambiguous-–than these observations imply.
From the beginning of this Republic, in revolutionary rhetoric and in legislative provision, those who established the new nation expressed an aversion to the idea of professional or standing armies. This was one of the issues that led to the revolt against the Crown. The minutemen at Lexington and Concord ennobled the American ideal, the citizen soldier.
As it turned out, the widespread discomfort with the idea of a standing army also provided some practical budget advantages for the young nation—armies and navies were expensive. And the citizen soldier offered a political supplement to the constitutional checks on the declaration of war: it was a widely shared and enduring assumption that in a democracy no war fought by the citizens of that democracy can be sustained unless there is clear popular support for the commitment and for the cost. This was consistent with an abiding principle of American democracy: civilian control of the military.
The ideal of the citizen soldier was a crucial element in debating the decision in the 1970s to end the draft and move to an all-volunteer force. And in recent years most proposals for a reinstatement of the draft have focused less on military requirements and have been based on the assertion that such a system would provide a more significant popular check on military activities. The assumption was that if all of our sons and daughters faced the possibility of being engaged in armed conflict in Iraqi villages and in the Afghanistan mountains, perhaps no sons and daughters would face this exposure—or if they did, there would be a full discussion and acceptance of the national interest that required this.
This debate about the composition of the military obviously informs broader views toward veterans, but my question is a simple one: What does a democracy owe to its veterans, following their wartime military service? This simple question does not have a simple answer in practice. Prior to World War II, the prevailing view tended to be that the country owes little to those discharged war veterans who are physically fit: as citizen soldiers, as beneficiaries of the compact of the democracy, their service was not a contract for which further compensation was due but rather was the necessary obligation of citizenship in a free society.
Clearly this view of no compensation for healthy veterans has not been the prevailing one for the last seventy-five years. The “GIs” of World War Two were cultural heroes and came home to a grateful nation. This reframed the dominant view of veterans’ benefits. Yet it is important to note that even prior to WWII there were major exceptions to the principle that there was no obligation to healthy veterans.
The passage of time has always been important in the development of public affection for – and even mythologizing of – wartime service. Surely a grateful republic embraced the Revolutionary War veterans. In the early years, however, it was but a quick embrace as the new nation and its citizens had much to do. Within a few years, however, the celebration of the historic revolution and those heroes who fought it became an important ritual of national unity. The pattern of support for veterans that evolved following the Revolution would frame the fundamentals that would mark our policy down through the First World War: support for widows and orphans of those who died in combat action, some limited support for combat-related disability, selective land grants down through the 1850s, and, for Revolutionary War and Union Civil War veterans, pensions for aged survivors.
The First World War was a war of citizen soldiers—conscription drew broadly from the population as the military forces increased in 18 months from approximately 125,000 to nearly four million serving by November 1918. President Woodrow Wilson and the Congress provided a war-risk insurance plan for active duty military personnel, who paid their own premiums. There was an initial expectation that along with health care for combat injuries, this would be sufficient—but it proved not to be adequate in many cases to provide for transitions back to civilian life.
Even though World War I individual veteran benefits were limited, the magnitude of the numbers who served in the armed forces and who required medical support was consequential. In the 1920s about 20 percent of the federal budget went to veterans. And in 1921 in response to the need, Congress institutionalized veterans’ support with the creation of the federal Veterans Bureau. This was the source of some of the embarrassing corruption during the Warren Harding presidency and in 1930 the agency was reorganized as the Veterans Administration.
Within a few years of the end of the war, many of its veterans who had not required any of the medical treatment or disability-related support were increasingly of the view that they should receive some benefit in compensation for their service. Economic problems encouraged this position. In 1924 the veterans achieved, over President Coolidge’s veto, passage of a bonus to be paid in 1945. By the early 1930s many sought early payment of this bonus as a result of the great depression and a group organized as the Bonus Expeditionary Force or Bonus Army marched on Washington to lobby and to protest. In the summer of 1932 President Herbert Hoover ordered General Douglas McArthur to remove them physically. He did this by using tanks and tear gas to expel them from their Washington encampment. This entire experience was an embarrassing one for many in the United States. The government’s desire to avoid a repeat of any such confrontation was an important part of the policy consideration for the comprehensive veterans’ programs provided to veterans of the Second World War.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—known simply as the “GI Bill” – was a program that fundamentally shifted the nation’s treatment of war veterans. The comprehensive legislation provided for all veterans, including the able bodied, and was passed by Congress prior to the conclusion of the war. It expanded traditional medical and disability programs but also provided for a significant investment in the transition of all veterans back into American society. The legislation provided for up to 52 weeks of unemployment benefits, established an interest free loan program for the purchase of homes, farms, or businesses, and offered a comprehensive and generous plan to support education or training for veterans.
As with earlier veterans’ legislation, the 1944 GI Bill provided medical support, but this legislation set a new standard with an investment in healthy veterans. The GI Bill was not without flaws, however. There were political calculations involved in passage of the legislation and there were instances of fraud in the administration of benefits, as pointed out by Berkeley historian Kathleen Frydl in her thorough analysis of the political context and full consequences of the bill.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the provisions of the GI Bill encouraged and helped underwrite much of the creative energy that American society experienced following the war. The education provisions of the GI Bill stand with the civil rights and women’s rights movements in expanding the system of American higher education so that it became a model for access and democratization. Within a few years, veterans comprised nearly half of the students enrolled in American colleges and universities.
The GI Bill was more than a compensatory handshake, a gratuity, for the citizen soldiers of the global war. It built upon New Deal programs and one of the goals of the GI Bill was to ease the demobilization of a military force of nearly 16 million men and women. The GI Bill was the largest entitlement program up to this point in American history (social security would shortly surpass it but it had not yet done that). In the several years following the war the Veterans Administration had the largest number of employees of any government agency. In 1950 71% of federal payments to individuals went to veterans through the various veterans’ programs.
The public generosity toward war veterans in the 1940s would not be sustained at the same level even into the next decade. In the Cold War years and in the major post-war economic and social adjustments, there were a number of competing budget priorities. And there were concerns about some of the allegations of fraudulent claims under the GI Bill. In establishing programs for Korean War veterans and then Vietnam War veterans, the government increasingly scaled up military service requirements for eligibility and scaled down levels of support, including reduced unemployment benefits and loans. By the Vietnam period, the benefits simply did not cover full educational costs.
It is revealing that no one really questioned the basic assumptions of the GI Bill, even as they scaled back its coverage. The educational benefit came to dominate: the principle had been established that a grateful nation owed to its wartime citizen soldiers compensatory support that would enable them to pursue an education in order to advance their lives and to pursue their ambitions. Future debates would be over details, not over the principle. Additionally there was broad acceptance of policies and programs that provided for medical and other support for veterans from discharge to death, and the medical support was not restricted to service-connected disabilities. Other veterans could meet eligibility standards for VA health care.
Vietnam veterans of course faced a nation divided in its support for the war, which for some at least meant a lessened sense of gratitude to those who served in the war. Even though there had been unpopular wars historically, there really was no precedent for a significant public sentiment that blamed those called to fight these wars. The nature and the unpopularity of the Vietnam War did not noticeably influence the traditional programs for veterans—other than the reduced coverage which followed the post World War II pattern. On the other hand, there was at best a slow, even grudging, recognition and acceptance of responsibility for some newly-identified and newly-understood consequences of combat service.
The government denied for many years the medical effects of weapons such as Agent Orange—despite compelling and tangible evidence of this powerful herbicide-defoliant’s residual malignancies. In 1991, following years of litigation and medical claims, the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to consider Agent Orange a presumptive factor in a range of cancers and other conditions. And only in the last few years has there been any acknowledgement of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the psychological malignancy, was also rejected in the immediate post-war years as a medical condition. Traditional accounts of “battle fatigue” and of “shell shock” were as old as warfare—in the Civil War it was called “soldier’s heart.” There was resistance to recognizing this as a chronic illness—with even some of the older veterans dismissing complaints as a whine that the Vietnam veterans needed to move beyond.
Finally in 1979 the Congress authorized the Veterans Administration to provide counseling for those suffering from PTSD symptoms. It was the fifth time such legislation had been introduced. Passage followed shortly after the American Psychiatric Association had recognized this as a clinical condition. Approval of support for PTSD was easier and faster than Agent Orange because of the tremendous liability issues associated with the latter.
The post-Vietnam programs of support for veterans were comprehensive—and they were expensive. Neither of which presumes their adequacy in meeting the needs of veterans.
In 2000, the department, at cabinet level since 1988, was the largest federal agency outside of the defense department. Over 20% of the federal non-defense personnel worked for the VA. And this expense was largely politically protected from cost cutters and critics. In the spring of 2001, Pew learned that only 3% of respondents to a survey favored a reduction in spending on veterans’ programs.
The Gulf War in 1990-91, Operation Desert Storm, had further enhanced this climate of public support for the military and veterans. The military effectiveness of the troops who had served in that operation strengthened the image. The 9/11 attacks underlined this climate of support for the military with an emotional jolt. There have been few events in American history that elicited such widespread fear, resolve, and national unity. If the US military had little role to play on that fast-moving morning, it emphatically would soon. It quickly became apparent that these attacks were initiated by the militant Islamic fundamentalist group, Al Quaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. This group had been provided sanctuary and training sites by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. There was strong public support for the US militarily to strike back.
The US-led NATO attack in late 2001 easily toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan. The rapid defeat in the early spring of 2003 of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, considered a co-conspirator in international terrorism, one who allegedly was emboldened by “weapons of mass destruction” in his arsenal, only increased the popular acclaim for the professionalism and the courage of the American military. This acclaim never really lessened—despite serious opposition to the rationale for the war at the outset, opposition which increased in the following months as there turned out to be no weapons of mass destruction. Support for those serving in the military and the veterans of the wars never wavered.
Surely there were political calculations involved in this—many learned from the Vietnam experience that it was not only unfair to blame the warriors for the war, but it was also politically inexpedient to do so in this era of acclaim for those who served. There have been few public sports or cultural events in the last several years where servicemen and women have not been saluted. Magnetic ribbons and bumper stickers on automobiles, lapel pins and refrigerator stickers all attest to this. Businesses, corporations, and not-for-profit groups elbow with each other to pay homage to this generation’s armed forces. Communities across the United States have bonded in celebration of local units departing for the Middle East and have waited on the tarmac to embrace their return. And too often the routines of life have been altered as entire communities pause to thank and to mourn those whose sacrifice was forever.
But national celebration and individual grief do not necessarily result in the delivery of support: as these wars proved more complicated than they appeared when they began, it should not be surprising that some needs of those who served have gone unmet. There was a national wake-up call to this situation when two reporters for the Washington Post broke a story in February 2007 regarding deplorable conditions for outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Ten days ago I visited Bethesda Naval Hospital; it was my twentieth visit to one of the major military hospitals. On all of these occasions I have never met anyone with responsibility for serving patients at these medical centers, military or civilian, medical or support personnel, who was not fully committed to doing all that they could to comfort and to heal the patients and to support their families. But the record affirms that they have not always had the capacity or the facilities to meet their goals.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have gone on much longer than anyone predicted in 2001 or 2003. The resistance in these countries has proved more durable, effective, and deadly than nearly any official projections made at the outset. As a result of this our forces have been pressed with multiple tours in the hostile areas, and as their equipment has been pushed too hard and sometimes proved inadequate to the demands of the theatre, so too have the support systems domestically been strained. Hospitals and medical support facilities and VA transitional and ongoing services have faced unexpected demands and numbers. As no one had anticipated wars of this length, nor had they planned for casualties of this magnitude and medical needs of this complexity.
In addition to the duration of the wars, the unanticipated need for medical support for wounded veterans has resulted from two other factors, both positive developments, but with consequences. One has to do with the efficiency and effectiveness of modern battlefield medicine and the other has to do with the quality of combat protective gear and its proven effectiveness in preventing some fatal wounds.
In all US wars prior to this century, the ratio of surviving wounded to fatalities was 2.1 to one. This actually was pretty constant—in
WWII it was 2.3 to 1 and in Vietnam it was 2.6 to 1. In Iraq, over the period from the invasion in March of 2003 down through mid-December of last year, the ratio of wounded to killed was 7.25 to 1. In Afghanistan from October 2001 to December 2009 it was slightly better than 5 to 1. Clearly battlefield medicine has advanced significantly from the Vietnam era. Speed and quality of treatment are critical. Military medicine is saving young men and women who would have died in previous wars.
Modern medicine has a companion-piece in modern military technology. Even with its shortcomings, the body armor used in the field serves to protect vital organs from fatal damage. Modern body armor has helped prevent fatalities but it has not protected troops from loss of limbs, from horrible burns, or from head injuries, often resulting in significant cognitive brain damage.
In addition to the armor, troops enclosed in protective steel vehicles have been subject to major explosions resulting often in serious burn injuries and major concussions. As of one year ago, there were 1286 combat veterans with amputations. And down through 2007 there were 43,779 traumatic brain injuries. Their hospital stays are lengthy with requirements for sophisticated treatment, state of the art prostheses, multiple surgeries, and extended physical and occupational therapy, all of which has often exceeded the capacity of the hospitals.
Let me add a brief personal observation. In my hospital visits over the last four and a half years I go room to room, bed to bed, to talk to the wounded veterans. I always ask them what happened to them and they are always quite willing to talk about it. Of the 150-200 patients with whom I have spoken, they describe snipers, mines, mortars from the back of a pickup speeding away behind a berm, but most commonly they talk about an improvised explosive device—hidden under the road or a bridge, sitting in road trash, perhaps a suicide bomber in a car or in a crowd. At most a half dozen have told me that they saw the person who attacked them. The Iraq war has not been marked by many conventional firefights or battlefield engagements, where the US military can dominate.
There generally has been a strong political commitment to address the issues of the wounded veterans. For several years this clear resolve was absent in another of the major post-WWII veterans’ programs, the GI Bill for education. In 1984 Congress approved the Montgomery GI Bill.
This peacetime program was restricted in terms of eligibility and the benefits were often inadequate. Remedies proved politically complicated.
The sharp divisions that marked discussions about remedying shortcomings in the Montgomery program were somewhat surprising. The GI Bill after all was the celebrated symbol of a successful veterans’ program. The surprise is lessened however when we consider the immediate context—both the nature of the all-volunteer military and the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With a force that was pushed hard by frequent deployments, with a mission that had become complicated and nuanced, and with technology that was increasingly sophisticated, the military needed trained, experienced, personnel. If too many men and women left the service following their initial enlistment in order to enroll in school or a training program there could be major personnel problems.
The tension between veterans’ benefits and military requirements was largely unprecedented. Previous wartime benefits were either part of a demobilization process (WWII and Korea) or of an engagement such as Vietnam that was sustained by the draft and draft-induced enlistments to maintain personnel goals. Reenlistments had always been critical to maintain experienced non-commissioned officers, but in the all-volunteer force they became even more critical. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon had no draft to increase the pipeline of recruits. Within a few years after the 9/11 surge in enlistments, enlistment and reenlistment goals were challenged by the nature of the war and the civilian employment opportunities in a growing economy. The Army especially was straining to meet its goals.
Senator James Webb of Virginia, a decorated Vietnam Marine officer, former Assistant Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Navy, and accomplished novelist on the Vietnam War and on the military, introduced legislation in January 2007 to provide current veterans with educational benefits roughly equivalent to those of the Second World War. Officials in the Pentagon projected some significant reenlistment problems that would result from this expanded GI Bill.
During debate over the proposed legislation, the Defense Department and the White House publicly opposed the bill and they were joined by a number of congressmen and senators. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insisted that any enhanced benefits program contain the option of “transferability”—so that military personnel who reenlisted and served a minimum number of years could transfer the benefit to a spouse or child. Advocates believed that such a provision would provide a means to stay in the service and still utilize the benefit—it might even make reenlistment more attractive.
The Webb bill, with the transferability amendment, was approved by Congress and signed by President Bush in June 2008. In the fall of 2009 over 180,000 veterans enrolled under the provisions of the new GI Bill. But the entire debate over the legislation signaled a major shift in the way many policy makers and government officials regarded veterans’ benefits—in addition to being a service bonus from a grateful nation, this now was considered a personnel tool in the task of managing the modern military.
With this overview of official veteran policy historically, let me turn to an intriguing question that is unresolved. As I engaged in researching the history of veterans’ benefits, one thing stood out particularly: the difference in attitudes toward the current generation of veterans as compared with the reception of the Vietnam War veterans in the late 1960s and 1970s. Clearly the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq—and more recently Afghanistan—have not had sustained popular support. Yet the servicemen and women who have served in our current wars have been warmly welcomed and thanked for their service—and the Vietnam veterans largely came home to neither welcome nor thanks.
As Max Cleland, Vietnam triple amputee and head of the Veterans Administration and one-term US Senator from Georgia, wryly observed, he and the veterans never had a ticker tape parade and instead were treated as “co-conspirators in some escapade with sinister overtones.” Tim O’Brien, Vietnam veteran, wrote in Going after Cacciato:
They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice. They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising a flag and calling it a victory. (p.270)
Those who have served in wars other than Vietnam generally recognized that if their fellow citizens did not always consider what they had done as heroic, neither did they reject it as criminal. In the case of Vietnam the opposition to the war was often expressed in pretty sharp rhetoric. This was about more than a mistaken policy. Daniel Berrigan’s sense of being “morally outraged … ashamed” had a resonance. And when a distinguished journalist such as Anthony Lewis referred to the 1972 bombings of Hanoi as “a crime against humanity” it was hard not to include the airmen as among the criminals.
The culture of the 1960s was marked of course by young people, of military age, revolting against the conventional and affirming values of love, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Surely Bob Dylan and Joan Baez assuring that “The Times They are A’Changin,” Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-to Die” challenge, and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” plea mirrored as they also shaped a generation’s and an era’s sense of revolution—and resolution.
Demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the acoustic cultural manifesto at the Woodstock festival in 1969 stood as symbols of the time—symbols that were in sharp counterpoint to all that the military in Vietnam seemed to represent in terms of culture, values, and goals. In his compendium of accounts of returning veterans, Bob Greene included many reports of veterans being spat upon at airports and of being called “baby killers” on the street. Some have challenged the veracity of these reported incidents, but as one veteran wrote, “If the number of ‘spitting’ incidents are [sic] inflated, it doesn’t change for a minute the feelings of rejection and scorn that a bunch of depressed and confused young men experienced when they returned home from doing what their country told them to do.”
The Defense Department has estimated that over 3.5 million Americans served in the military in Vietnam. There were 47,424 battle deaths in Vietnam and 10,785 other deaths in the country. There were over 150,000 wounds that did not require hospitalization and 153, 303 hospitalized. This was a major and costly war, but as the purposes and origins came under question, so did those who were fighting it—as did their sacrifices and those of their comrades. The anger and emotions, the defensiveness and moral judgments of this volatile mix should never be minimized.
Public perceptions of the war in Vietnam had been influenced by events during the war and by coverage of them – by disclosure of the horror of My Lai, the photo of Vietnamese General Loan executing a Viet Cong officer, the small Vietnamese girl and others, clothes burned from their bodies, fleeing from napalm. In 1971 Gallup reported that 50% of Americans polled believed that incidents such as the atrocity at My Lai were “common occurrences” in Vietnam. Louis Harris learned that 81% of his respondents believed that there were “other incidents” like My Lai which had been unreported. Of course we now know that other atrocities did occur. But the incidents became the commonplace in the minds of many. And Lieutenant Calley of the Americal Division, rather than “the boy next door” of WWII, became to many critics the symbol of the military in Vietnam.
The war in Vietnam was in America’s living rooms. Television footage was far more timely and graphic than were WWII newsreels, and correspondents in Vietnam had far more independence than did their predecessors (or, indeed, their successors in Iraq and Afghanistan).
In February 1968 there were 636 accredited correspondents in Vietnam. They had pretty free movement throughout the theatre. The tragic images of war and accounts of its complexities became part of daily American life. Some veterans of the war confirmed incidents they observed or even participated in, that were morally indefensible—or at best morally ambiguous. In the minds of many there was a heavy burden of guilt, or at least doubt, placed—unfairly – on all of those who served. Who were the “baby killers”?
In a comparison filled with ironies, perhaps the greatest one is that those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have volunteered for military duty—yet they have been celebrated for serving in unpopular wars. In Vietnam the draft served to fill enlisted ranks and the threat of the draft encouraged enlistments. The unwilling—or at least the unenthused—found themselves criticized for answering the call to military duty. Draftees paid a high price for this—in 1965 28% of the soldiers killed in Vietnam were draftees and by 1969 it was 62%. But the draft was not the great leveler that it promised to be.
The historian Christian Appy studied the casualties in Vietnam and determined that the combat forces there were perhaps the youngest in US history. As he noted, “Thus most of the Americans who fought in Vietnam were powerless, working-class teenagers sent to fight an undeclared war by presidents for whom they were not even eligible to vote.” If this led to some sense of unfairness and injustice on the part of the combat troops, it did not necessarily lead to a bonding with antiwar protestors—with the Vietnam Veterans against the War being an obvious counter example.
In fact, many veterans came home from Vietnam with mixed feelings about the war and its conduct. Some significant numbers of them were openly critical. But they did not easily make common cause with the anti-war movement.
Nonetheless, reconciliation did come—even as for many veterans the scars remained. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to extend amnesty to all draft resisters helped to move beyond that divisive issue—although in the short term it served to harden the views of those who viewed this group as heroic on the one hand and those who considered them traitors on the other. By the late 1970s President Carter was reminding Americans that it was crucial to separate the warriors from the war and to honor the patriotism and courage of those who had served in Vietnam. He insisted that they deserved better than to be treated “as an unfortunate or embarrassing reminder of the divisiveness of the war itself.” President Ronald Reagan rekindled some divisions when he described the Vietnam War as a “noble cause”—but he backed off from that somewhat by focusing subsequently upon the need to honor the veterans.
By the late 1970s public opinion polls affirmed a far more positive public attitude toward the Vietnam veterans. President Reagan played an important role in restoring the credibility of the military—this was important to him strategically, politically, and personally. He and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger oversaw significant new investments into the defense infrastructure, including better compensation for active duty military personnel. And the Reagan rhetoric consistently evoked gratitude for those who served. This found a responsive audience and a bipartisan chorus—few Democrats were eager to challenge the president on this ground.
The Vietnam Memorial in Washington would prove to be an important symbol of remembering, honoring, and reconciling—even if in its formative years it too got caught up in significant and emotional debates over the design and the message. The focus and discipline and commitment of Jan Scruggs, who had been wounded while serving in the Army in Vietnam, were critical for this process. He never once lost his focus on the need to have the memorial. He and a group of committed veterans and supporters navigated through the political divisions that Vietnam still engendered. Scruggs believed that reconciliation could only follow remembering. He quoted from Archibald MacLeish: “We were young. We have died. Remember us.”
The Veterans Day 1982 “homecoming” celebration welcoming, belatedly, Vietnam veterans and a ceremony formally dedicating the Wall provide examples of the ongoing divisions from the war. Those who sought a more “heroic” memorial continued to be frustrated that the Wall did not have any traditional statuary—the Frederick Hart statue “Three Infantrymen” had not yet joined Maya Lin’s wall. There was also concern from some groups that the antiwar veterans’ movement had too much influence over the celebrations. This apprehension caused President Ronald Reagan finally to decline to appear at the dedication ceremony. It nonetheless proved to be an occasion when reconciliation truly began. But as often seemed to be the case regarding Vietnam veterans, the process was different. Columnist Mary McGrory wrote of the Vietnam veterans’ celebration, “Naturally they had to organize [the “homecoming” parade] themselves, just as they had to raise money for their wall, just as they had to counsel each other in their rap centers, just as they had to raise the cry about ‘Agent Orange.’”
The contrast with today is sharp. As was the case with Vietnam, many Americans have believed that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are mistakes and have challenged these engagements and their advocates. But unlike 40 years ago, the troops who have engaged in these current wars have avoided being drawn into the controversy—except as positive references and allies, as both supporters and critics of the wars affirm their interest in protecting the safety and the honor of those who serve.
It is intriguing that the dominant image and rhetoric today invests in the all-volunteer force all of the imagery of the celebrated citizen soldiers who were called up to fight our wars historically. In fact, in today’s military only the National Guard and Reserve units mobilized for combat tours really fit this historic model. Last year’s Jefferson lecturer, the distinguished historian David Kennedy, called the current military a “mercenary” force. He insisted this was not pejorative but he was concerned about the consequences of not having some form of draft that would make the military more representative of our society.
There is a professionalism that marks the armed forces today, partially a deliberate and disciplined military leadership response to the perception of the state of the military during the Vietnam-era. The high level of training, the focus on accomplishing goals and minimizing casualties, the sophistication of modern military technology, all serve to advance more professional armed forces.
The demographics of the armed forces have changed from those of the Vietnam era. Active duty personnel as compared to 1973 have an older mean age, are more female (2.2% of those serving in 1973 and 20% in 2007), are significantly more likely to be married, to have a high school diploma, and are less likely to come from the northeastern states.
They are less likely to be white—with the change in this profile coming from increases in Hispanic and Asian members of the military.
A recent study determined that 75% of those killed in Iraq were white. In Vietnam the figure had been 86%. The median age of the Iraq dead was 24 years—and in Vietnam it was 21 years. The troops killed in Iraq tend to be more middle class or lower middle class in background than representative of the poorest income areas. This may largely be a reflection of the medical standards and education minimums required for enlistment today and the fact that the poorest families have the lowest health profile and the poorest record of completing a high school education.
Public opinion polls affirm support for the military. In the early 1970s 27% of the public had “a great deal” of confidence in the military—lagging behind confidence in institutions such as medicine, universities, organized religion, and major companies. By the turn of the century 44% of the public had great confidence in the military—more than any other institution in the country.
The professional image of the modern all-volunteer force does influence current public attitudes toward the military. It also reinforces a somewhat abstracted, even video game, perspective on combat activities. Scholars such as Richard Kohn and Andrew Bacevich have commented that military action has become nearly the equivalent of a spectator sport.
As Professor Kohn has suggested, “war” has become an all-purpose metaphor for any proposed initiative. It is a trivialization of something that should never be thought of as trivial.
The United States may have many political divisions today, but President Obama had no challenges when in his State of the Union message last week he said to those in uniform: “Americans are united in sending one message: we honor your service, we are inspired by your sacrifice, and you have our unyielding support. “
We have come a long way from the revolutionary generation’s belief that the nation owed nothing to healthy veterans and from the Bonus Army protest encampment. And we have come a long way from Vietnam veterans being marginalized or worse. We need remember always: in our democracy, under our Constitution, the military does not start wars. They fight them. On our behalf and at the direction of our political leadership.
Wars are not pretty things. This past December Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke to US troops stationed near Kirkuk in Iraq. He said, “One of the myths in the international community is that the United States likes war. And the reality is, other than the first two or three years of World War II there has never been a popular war in America.”
One could debate some elements of the Secretary’s assertion, but in fact I think it is largely accurate. And I would further observe that this is a good thing. While wars may sometimes be necessary and surely need to be supported in order to be sustained, it can be a dangerous thing if they are “popular.” But this leads us to a different subject, a terribly important one, and I shall not ask us to take that on now. It is relevant though to this concluding thought: those who serve at risk on our behalf should never again feel that the gratitude of the Republic for their sacrifice is dependent upon the popularity of the war we have asked them to fight.
Last Updated: 3/15/10