Veterans usually make the news in one of two ways: They’re found dead under a bridge after battles with homelessness or addiction. Or they run for office off the strength of their glittering resumes.
“The Odyssey’’ is a tale that is perpetually relevant because the road home from war always seems endless. For today’s vets, it is no different. The recent episode involving Track Palin’s domestic abuse charges is catnip for headline writers, but the reality faced by many veterans is that they get lost to obscurity and sometimes struggle to find an identity beyond their completed service.
“My son, like so many others, they come back a bit different. They come back hardened. They come back wondering if there is that respect for what their fellow soldiers and airmen and every other member of the military have given so sacrificially to this country,’’ Sarah Palin said of her son’s travails before going on to blame President Obama for them. The same words could have been spoken 70 years ago as World War II wound down. The narrative myths of the Greatest Generation are so fixed in the American psyche now it can take a supreme cognitive effort to remember they were once angry young men who both feared and resented home. A 1947 War Department survey reported that one in five World War II veterans was “completely hostile’’ to civilians. A Gallup poll conducted the same year reported that approximately one-third of the 16 million or so young vets back stateside felt estranged from civilian life. After the victory parades ended, journalist Agnes Meyer found that many American veterans were struggling to readjust, filled with “appalling loneliness and bitterness . . . floating in a vacuum of neglect, idleness and distress.’’
If this all sounds like a very different postwar environment than the one glazed in nostalgia by Tom Brokaw and others, it’s because it was. Post-World War II America teemed with unease and uncertainty, not least because of “the veteran question’’ — actually a series of questions that could belong as easily in America circa 2016 as in 1947: Veteran unemployment. Veteran homelessness. Representation of veterans in media stories as rage-filled monsters or as broken victims. A widening rift between veterans and civilians that could, and sometimes did, churn into antipathy.
The resentment wasn’t one-sided, either. Some segments of America saw the G.I. Bill — the revolutionary education legislation that sent approximately 7.8 million vets to college and helped produce 14 Nobel laureates, 20-plus Pulitzer Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, and three presidents, among others — as a drain on society at large. The Saturday Evening Post tapped into this fear in 1946 when it asked, “Are We Making a Bum out of G.I. Joe?’’
We’re a different America today, fighting a different type of war, with a different sort of relationship to our armed forces. But parallels can be found.
Underneath the pomp and shine of 21st-century yellow ribbon patriotism lies an apathy with teeth. One easy but loud example: If comments sections of Internet articles are to be viewed as a place where people share how they really feel — rather than simply being digital cesspools — it’s clear the G.I. “bum’’ fear still persists. “Well, they volunteered’’ is the postmodern way to outsource culpability for the consequences of our nation’s military decisions. “They volunteered’’ is a means to both maintain disassociation and proclaim moral purity, perhaps even moral superiority. It’s embarrassing to admit how many times I’ve waded into those digital cesspools at the bottom of an article about post-9/11 veterans to cite those Nobel laureate/Pulitzer Prize stats. In news that will surprise no one, this did not curb any digital rage.
My generation of vets is mostly made up of millennials, a larger swath of the American population reared under the dueling shadows and narratives of World War II and Vietnam. While our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq more resemble Vietnam in purpose if not result, our stateside reception has felt like a preemptive, decadelong Victory Day. There are the public homecomings during football and baseball games. The business partnerships and D.C. hackery, such as the current brouhaha involving the Palins. The beer commercials starring (compensated) hometown heroes. We are becoming — have already become — professionals at it, and it’s more than a bad look. It’s an inhibiting one.
(Says the guy with an Iraq war novel coming out, I know. Just because I’m a hypocrite doesn’t mean I’m wrong.)
America’s always done parades well, it’s the stuff that comes after — what President Lincoln called “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan’’ in his second inaugural address in 1865 — that we struggle with.
A number of historians have written about how sanitized our understanding of the post-World War II period has become. Kenneth Rose wrote an entire book about it, “Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II.’’ In that book’s introduction, Rose writes, “Servicemen harbored a seething resentment against what they considered to be the soft life of civilians. This contempt for the civilian population sometimes led to violent clashes and at the very least did damage to the idea of an America united behind the war effort.’’
A variety of oral history projects has captured this moment in the postwar experience, before the distortions of memory and narrative set in. In 2012, World War II army veteran Earl Gonzales, who served in an artillery unit in the European theater, spoke to The Oklahoman about his own transition.
“I was nervous and mean as a rattlesnake,’’ Gonzales said then. “I didn’t trust anybody. I didn’t want to be around anybody. I carried a pistol that I took off a dead German private everywhere I went.’’ He also spoke frankly about assaulting a civilian who asked for a cigarette light and of struggling with alcohol.
In literature, Tom Rath from “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’’ and Frank Wheeler of “Revolutionary Road’’ share much more than a Metro-North commute; despite their best attempts to fit in and just be regular company and family men, lingering combat memories feed their existential malaise. And then there’s cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s “Willie and Joe,’’ already fixtures in American newspapers for their typical grunt exploits during the war, who returned home to a country ready to move on, even if they weren’t yet sure how to.
Mauldin was one of those World War II vets turned Pulitzer Prize winners — he won two — and also brought his caustic pen to prose. He became a pseudo-celebrity in the midst of the war due to his work for Stars and Stripes, and he wrote with a journalist’s directness and a novelist’s purview, clinging to his roots as an infantry dogface while on VIP stages with generals and politicians because of his “silly drawings.’’
Mauldin’s 1947 memoir, “Back Home,’’ makes clear how much of his cartoon work was influenced by his own experiences and encounters with other G.I.s — Willie and Joe became the everymen of American soldiers because they were exactly that. While he originally wanted to kill them off on the last day of combat in Europe (calling to mind “All Quiet on the Western Front’’), he instead brought them back with him, to deal with all sorts of new enemies on the homefront: loan sharks posing as patriots. Ex-girlfriends who didn’t wait. Slicksleeves who never went overseas but pretend for personal gain. And yes, the taxman at the IRS looking to collect on accrued property revenue.
Mauldin’s fiercest missives didn’t fire up or down American society, though, but sideways, toward the “professional veteran’’ class. He considered the American Legion and VFW schemers and manipulators, special interest groups in the modern lingo, “political machines . . . in the hands of comparatively few.’’ He savaged their attempts to stay separate and distinct from the citizenry, worked in jabs about their cozy relationship with the VA, and liked to quote General Omar Bradley on the citizen-veteran dynamic: “I feel it is my duty as an American citizen to remind veterans that their future lies in honest opportunity rather than special privilege.’’
Again, that was a different time. More than 12 percent of the country served during World War II, sequentially multiplying the amount of friends and relatives with direct connections to the war effort. Compare that to now, when one-half of 1 percent of the population serves, and the only thing matching our foreign wars’ endlessness is our collective disinterest in them. The veterans groups of today have legitimate reason for their noisemaking. And yet, it’d be refreshing — perhaps even vital — for someone in that space to say, “It’s better to be a Mister than a Veteran,’’ as Mauldin does in “Back Home.’’
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs still pays out a monthly pension to the daughter of a Civil War veteran. Yes, she’s old, and her father clearly had her when he was old, too, but still. He fought for the Union in the 1860s. You, me, all American taxpayers are still paying him back for what he did at Gettysburg.
Just a crazy, weird outlier? Not quite. The VA is still providing benefits to 16 widows and offspring of vets from the Spanish-American War; ditto for more than 4,000 widows and offspring of World War I veterans. And those are just the old, almost forgotten wars. Benefits ranging from disability checks to GI Bill payments for World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan vets and their families push easily into the billions every fiscal year.
All that data is from a 2014 investigation by The Wall Street Journal into the long-term costs of America’s wars and battles. “Can’t put a cost on it’’ is a well-worn cliché, but actually you can, that’s partly the point of capitalism. And when you attach a dollar sign to the consequences of our national defense, it gets ugly, and fast.
All of that is part of the inheritance and legacy the first batch of my generation of vets came home to in 2002. In that regard, it’s no wonder some became professionalized so quickly. The specialization was inherently political and fractured, mirroring macro America.
Perhaps it was inevitable, given the fact that there are so few of us compared to our predecessors. Assimilating into the wider society, as Mauldin and Bradley advised, would have ensured that the necessary needs and care for those who had “borne the battle’’ would have lapsed. Still, we’re a far cry from simple dividing lines in vets organizations, as happened during the 1960s and 1970s when some chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars wouldn’t allow in Vietnam veterans.
Take the nonprofit sphere. We have liberal vets groups (VoteVets is one, a self-described progressive organization that also has a political action committee wing) and conservative vets groups (Concerned Veterans for America is one, allegedly having received money from the Koch brothers). There’s also a nonpartisan veterans organization, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, that functions as a special interests vets lobbying group. (Full disclosure: I’m a former employee of IAVA and member of the organization.) Even nonprofits devoted to clear apolitical aims, like the Wounded Warrior Project, have drawn the ire of charity watchdogs for being more interested in branding and paying administrative costs than fulfilling their founding purpose.
Back in the late 1940s, Mauldin’s Willie and Joe as transitioning “new citizens’’ proved a failure with newspaper editors and readers alike. America tends not to handle the aftermath of its wars with grace or care, and it certainly didn’t want pseudo-political takedowns of its soul dirtying up the funny papers. Mauldin, like many of his fellow veterans of the era, moved on. A long, successful career awaited, as well as a full life. But it wasn’t easy, nor was it neat, nor was it linear.
How’d they do it? Maybe, just maybe, it’s because they figured out it’s better to be a Miss or Mister than it is to be a Veteran in our American nation.
Matt Gallagher is a former Army captain and an Iraq war veteran. His debut novel, “Youngblood,’’ will be published Tuesday. A version of this article originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.