On Veteran Identity Politics

By Ross Caputi

Ever since I got out of the military, I’ve felt that those around me, conservatives and progressives alike, have bent over backwards to give me an opportunity to talk about my experience in Iraq. I think many people do it because they think they owe me this courtesy. But others seek me out and ask me to speak about my experience because they know and I know that veteran stories accomplish a lot of political work. I always accept, because I have an agenda to push. I want to end war and prosecute war criminals. But I’ve always felt a discomfort with using the authority of my voice as a veteran to accomplish anti-war work. It’s a strange corner that I feel backed into where I have to identify myself as a former soldier so that I can try to undermine our culture of soldier-worship. And I can’t help but feel troubled by the contradiction between the means and ends of this rhetorical strategy.

Our Role in the Anti-War Movement

No doubt, the privileged status of soldiers/veterans in the US is a major reason why we play such an important role in the anti-war movement. As I see it, our usefulness is unique in two ways: 1) Veterans lend authority and credibility to anti-war ideas by vouching for them. 2) Veterans serve as empathetic objects that audiences can be mobilized to support.

The first is our biggest contribution: we help civilians navigate support-the-troops jingoism and accusations that anti-war ideas are unpatriotic. For whatever historical reasons, veterans enjoy a near sacred status in US culture and society, and we carry with us an enormous amount of symbolic capital. Politicians invoke our interests and our honor to legitimize their policies, they parade us out during half-time shows as a PR stunt, we have our own holiday for Christ’s sake, but most importantly for the purposes of this post, our voices are privileged like none others. The general public bends over backwards to let us speak and be heard on all topics, but most of all on anything related to foreign policy. And we bring this privilege and symbolic capital with us to the antiwar movement. Simply by letting us make short speeches at anti-war rallies, or even letting us wear our cammies in an anti-war march, organizers know that audience will be more willing to listen and less likely to criticize. In short, veterans help legitimize anti-war ideas by vouching for them, which is quite a remarkable power to have, if you think about it.

In addition to lending the authority of our voices to the anti-war movement, veterans themselves have become a cause for anti-war organizations to mobilize around. The anti-war movement has sought to create an alternative way of supporting the troops—a way that doesn’t include cheerleading for wars—including a number of efforts from helping soldiers get conscientious objector status to veteran writing groups, trauma support groups, horticultural projects, and even free yoga classes.

Don’t mistake me for saying that there is anything cynical about the role of veterans in the anti-war movement or in the anti-war movement’s support for veterans. I think this relationship that we’ve developed, consciously or not, is strategic. That is, we’ve tried to maximize the usefulness of veterans with the symbolic means available to us. In fact, I worry that veterans are so useful that our authority, privilege, and status as victims are not properly questioned. What worries me more is that we are using the very same culture of soldier worship that we should be dismantling. In our effort to bring an anti-war message to a broader audience, mobilize popular support for our cause, and protect ourselves from criticism, the antiwar movement has used veterans as a kind of propaganda, banking on our symbolic capital and packaging an anti-war message within a familiar warrior ethos.

Perhaps no one is more guilty than I am of using my status as a veteran to advance my cause. I’m what you might call a professional veteran. I was able to carve out a niche for myself as an anti-war writer and speaker. I also got accepted into graduate programs that appreciate research with a social justice agenda. And I’m under no illusions that my short stint as an Op-Ed writer for the Guardian was due to the merits of my writing alone, or that I go into graduate school solely in virtue of my academic record. I’ve just found a way of marketing my work, and that usually involves telling a story about myself as a veteran with a social justice mission.

I can’t pretend like I haven’t benefited personally from this. And I must admit that I’m always worried that I’m approaching, or even crossing, ethical boundaries with the way I use my veteran privilege. For example, I feel a huge moral debt to the city of Fallujah because I participated in the second siege of Fallujah in 2004. So I wanted to make a documentary exposing the human consequences of that operation, and I wanted as much as possible to let Fallujans tell their story in their own words. However, I was certain that a story about and narrated by Iraqis would get minimal attention in the US. So I decided to narrate the film as a veteran and frame the story as one about a veteran searching for truth about what he participated in. This way, I could draw as much attention as possible to the Iraqi experience while using a familiar storytelling framework to attract a sympathetic audience.

I have to say, it worked. I’m quite sure that if I did not insert my voice into the story, my documentary would have been limited to a small Youtube audience. But I have mixed feelings about my film now, looking back on this choice. I found that as minimal as my presence was in the film, I still ended up receiving a disproportionate amount of the audiences attention and sympathy. The suffering of Fallujans became peripheral to my struggle to cope with the guilt of causing their suffering.

I believe that the anti-war movement faces this same tradeoff, but in a more general way. If we continue to use veterans as rhetorical authorities and victims, we will reach more people while preserving a militaristic culture of soldier-worship. I don’t know how to assess the success this messaging strategy has had so far. (By a casual observation of the state of the world, it seems to have failed.) But I do believe that such a strategy could only ever have a limited kind of success—a temporary change in foreign policy with a preservation of a core militaristic value. This raises several other questions, too. What does it mean, and what should it mean, to identify as a veteran? And is our current role in the anti-war movement as ethical and effective as it can be?

What Is Veteran Identity?

More than just a statement of previous employment history, being a veteran is a mark of membership in a highly symbolic and politicized demographic. It is presumed that veterans are a special interest group, with different needs from the general public. Many believe that veterans deserve or have earned this special care and consideration. But needing and deserving are miles apart, and this latter belief is the militaristic underguarding that motivates support-the-troops rhetoric.

Many believe that we deserve to be heard, too. Across the political spectrum you can see a broad effort to create a platform for veteran “voices” and “experiences.” I place these categories in quotes to highlight their abstractness, because I believe the anti-war movement has misplaced a lot of value in these abstractions.

You can see it in our slogans and in the headings of our partisan news sources—a constant appeal to the authority of veteran voices. Consider the title of this news article: “Veteran Speaks Out Against ‘Muslim Ban’.” This is simply a story about someone expressing an opinion. It might as well be the opinion of a dentist or a dish washer. Of course it’s not the case that it’s a good opinion because a veteran is saying, or that a veteran’s opinion ought to be more relevant. But I think we know that “Deli Worker Speaks Out Against ‘Muslim Ban’” or “Grandmother Speaks Out Against ‘Muslim Ban’” will not attract as much attention or be as persuasive.

This is what James Campbell has called combat gnosticism—“a construction that gives us war experience as a kind of gnosis, a secret knowledge which only an initiated elite knows.” I believe that combat gnosticism has dovetailed with veteran identity politics to place a high value on veteran voices and experiences as given goods. In the anti-war movement we often say that we want to highlight veteran voices and experiences, and that if the American public would only listen, they would understand that the war is not worth the suffering it causes soldiers.

However, the experiences of veterans do not always lend themselves to a single, anti-war interpretation. But, more importantly, combat experiences are not always insightful.

To illustrate my first point, take for example myself and Chris Kyle, the American Sniper guy. We both participated in the 2nd siege of Fallujah. We both saw basically the same thing, although he played a much more direct role in the combat than I did. But we interpret our experiences very differently. Chris tells the story that we liberated Fallujah from al-Qaeda, while I think we unjustly sacked a city.

The existence of a man like Chris Kyle makes me deeply skeptical about the value that we put on voices and experiences in the anti-war movement and in progressive movements more generally. If a veteran can be as wrong and as biased about his experience as Kyle, then we need undermine this belief in combat gnosticism.

To my second point, getting shot at is not an insightful or enlightening experience. Moreover, stories about war trauma do not have a self-evident, anti-war message. They can be interpreted in an number of partisan directions.

As a veteran I have very few useful and relevant things that I can say about what I witnessed. I can give testimony about us doing reconnaissance by fire, a war crime in the context of the second siege of Fallujah. But the only other thing I can say that has any value is just to note how wildly misinformed I was about why I was there, what we were doing, and who we were fighting against. But as a grad student, I have a little more to offer. Since my experience, I happen to have read a lot of books on the topic of Fallujah. If my interpretation of these events is better than Chris Kyle’s, it’s only because I’ve done my research.

The stories that I have to offer are not otherwise insightful. I can tell you about the mix of excitement and fear that comes with being shot at, or the time I watched the kindest officer in my battalion bleed out, or the time my Gunnery Sergeant tried to get me killed. All of these subjective and impressionistic stories lead to a general account of my emotional experience with war. But this should not be mistaken for any kind of truth about war. And this is true about many veterans, dare I say most. We have a lot to say about what war feels like, but we are often wildly misinformed about the history and politics surrounding the wars we fight in.

There are a few exceptions. Some veterans witnessed war crimes and they can offer important testimony. Some veterans worked in military disciplines that classify their activities, like military intelligence, and they can offer insights about these activities that are hidden from the public. And occasionally a few veterans coming from the higher end of the chain of command will speak out and they can offer insights into the strategic and operational thinking that is so obscure to most civilians.

But it is in fact rare that anti-war veterans speak from a place of expertise. Instead we speak from a place of authority. We’re like anti-war pastors that offer platitudes lending to a worldview built around a set of values.

Consider the words of a sign seen at a recent anti-Trump rally: “Hate is Not Great: I served with Muslims, I stand with Muslims.” Vouching for Muslims might seem like the best way we can be an ally in this hostile political environment. And using our symbolic capital as veterans might seem totally justified here, given the life and death nature of the situation. Muslims do face the threat of deadly hate crimes in America every day, so maybe we should raise our voices in any way we can. But if Muslims do need veterans to vouch for them, this is indeed a sorry state of affairs. Could there be stronger evidence of cultural militarism at work? And is this the best that anti-war veterans can do?

Veterans as a Cause/as Victims

To some degree it may be the case that it is easier to get an audience to empathize with the suffering of veterans than with Iraqis and Afghans. And if that is the case, including veteran causes—like advocacy for benefits, trauma support, or free yoga classes—within a broader anti-war program can be a way of attracting ordinary citizens to the movement.

Including veteran causes can also help deflect criticisms that the anti-war movement is unpatriotic. By nurturing the most revered symbol of American patriotism—the soldier/veteran—critics of the war can say that they too are patriotic, perhaps more so than the war’s supporters, who were too quick to send our men and women into harm’s way.

My point is not that the anti-war movement has taken on veteran issues for cynical reasons, or that veteran support actions are unimportant. My point is just that there is a symbolic politics to veteran issues incomparable to the issues facing any other demographic.

However, it’s a slippery slope from giving a symbolic nod to veteran issues to treating veterans as equal victims with the people they occupied. Many within the anti-war movement do treat the ambiguous status of soldiers as perpetrators and victims with great sophistication. Yet there is also a tendency to make concern for veteran issues the sole grounds for opposition to a war, and to make veterans (of a volunteer army in an unjust war) out to be the victims of war mongering politicians, as if soldiers are not moral agents at all. Veterans, in our society, are immune to that kind of criticism, and they are always worthy of exceptional concern and regard, whether their actions are right or wrong.

Veteran Culture

However, veteran identity is often more than just a fact of employment history or a kind of privilege. For some, being a veteran is a badge of honor. For these folks, their time employed by the military is more central to their self-image and personality than their current employment status as a bartender, being on the swimming team in high school, being a student, or whatever. It’s a selective, self-referential category that we chose to give some amount of prominence to—it’s something that we choose to think of as constituting part of our essential self.

Being a veteran can also mean being part of a culture too. Spending time in the military is an experience that gives one access to a world of specialized jargon, inside jokes, customs, and traditions. For some, this experience and being able to participate in this culture has shaped their personality in a more significant way than any other demographic that they belong to.

Many of us find it difficult to shed the nostalgia we have for our time in uniform. Even after we make the turn towards anti-imperialist politics, many vets are left with conflicting feelings about their personal experience. I’m not trying to demand that our attitude towards such an emotionally charged experience be made perfectly coherent with any strategic plan of action. But I am arguing that we not let our personal feelings about our time in the military and the extent to which we identify as a veteran get in the way of clear, strategic thinking about how to build an anti-war movement.

I believe the problem is bigger than trying to create a community where all voices matter equally. That should be a goal regardless or our broader strategy. I think that veteran identity politics is too compromising in its means and too modest in its goals. By using the cultural prestige of veterans to advance our anti-war message, we’re leaving core militaristic values intact. Rather than positioning ourselves as authorities on war or victims in a grid of intersectional, identity, interest groups, I think our role as anti-war veterans should be confessional, reparative, and reconciliatory.

Grassroots Reparations

I believe that grassroots reparations solves many of these problems. By grassroots reparations, I mean a kind of solidarity work that combines direct aid with truth-telling. As simple as it sounds, it is a sophisticated solution to the shortcomings of veteran identity politics, because it replaces this warrior ethos that I’ve been describing with a rhetoric of responsibility and reconciliation.

In practice, grassroots reparations means reaching out to the communities that we helped hurt, and making good on our moral debt to them by mobilizing resources, under their leadership and on their terms. But at the level of discourse, a reparative framework means that we need to bring an awareness of our moral agency and responsibilities to thinking and speaking. It means not only interrogating our individual roles in military violence, but also dismantling the mythologies and secrecies that have obscured the real impact of our actions, either by concealing or valorizing them. This means providing our victims with a platform to speak, while undermining the privilege of our own voices.

Grassroots reparations won’t replace the need for protest or marches. But I do believe that a reparative framework lends a lot of moral clarity to the veteran relationship with the anti-war movement.

Now, let me address some potential objections:

1) Veterans are very often used as war propaganda. So why shouldn’t the anti-war movement highlight the voices of anti-war veterans to subvert these appeals? It’s akin to dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools.

We can make a case for anti-war ideas while undermining veteran privilege. How would you want a white ally to support a cause like Black Lives Matter? I think it would be unsatisfactory for white allies to try to support Black Lives Matter in a way that does not also undermine their own privileged position in society. I think the same logic applies with veterans.

2) You’re making a straw-man of identity politics.

True. There are very sophisticated ways of thinking about voices, experiences, and identity categories. But I’m responding to the way the lingo of identity politics has been picked up by the anti-war movement and several other progressive movements.

3) We need to prioritize ending wars over repairing their damages, so our focus should be on crafting slogans, arguments, and narratives for a domestic audience.

Historically, we haven’t been very successful at preventing or ending wars, and I don’t feel good about asking our war victims to wait for us to achieve our long term political goals before we start addressing their needs. Fortunately, I don’t think we have to choose only one or the other. I think of grassroots reparations as just another kind of direct action. If we build compelling and informative media campaigns to accompany our reparations projects, this kind of work can have an important domestic impact and supplement the broader anti-war movement.

4) Since veterans are the most exploited in war and have the most skin in the game, their opinions should matter more, whether they’re an expert or not.

I don’t think this is a progressive position and I think it’s incoherent with democratic values. I do believe that making sure marginalized voices are equally heard is important, but I don’t believe in privileging any. Veteran voices are not marginalized.

5) Grassroots reparations only works by mobilizing guilt. We should not let the state off the hook and keep working for state reparations.

I think there’s a big difference between mobilizing guilt and cultivating a culture of responsibility, and I’m trying do do the latter. I just think its a fact of life that as a citizen of empire in a globalized world all of my actions create a ripple effect of unintended causes and consequences. I think we should be vigilant about how the way we live impacts others and do what we can to repair the harm we cause. And I don’t think this lessens the importance of state reparations, or precludes us from working for both.

Grassroots reparations is the way that I’ve chosen to resist war. This is the role that I feel most comfortable with. And I hope this might provide an alternative to others who also feel some discomfort with anti-war identity politics.

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