Last November, Virginians voted on an amendment to the state constitution that would exempt the surviving spouse of a service member killed in action from property taxes on his or her primary residence. Along with 87 percent of my fellow citizens, I voted in support. But I did so with mixed feelings.
Why the ambivalence? I fear there is a particular kind of pity at work. I am not referring to the sorrow and sympathy we feel for those who have suffered in war, and their families. These are worthy emotions that we have been rightly concerned to express, especially after our conspicuous failures to honor returning soldiers during the Vietnam War era. Rather, I have in mind a certain image of the service member as pitiable, as a kind of “troubled stranger” in need of help.
This is not simply a metaphorical condition. One consequence of the fact that only 0.5 percent of Americans have served in the armed forces since October 2001 is that most citizens cannot count active-duty military personnel or recent veterans among their family members or acquaintances. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey of the general public, more than 90 percent of the respondents expressed pride in the post-9/11 troops, and some three-quarters said they had thanked a service member. At the same time, most have no link to recent or active-duty service members, have never heard their stories, and report little understanding of their challenges. For at least half of the respondents, the “wars have made little difference in their lives.”
The distance between citizens in and out of uniform has been widened by the depiction of service members and veterans in the mass media, a characterization that tends to emphasize, in the words of the New York Times, “staggering levels” of psychological problems. The Times took the word “staggering” from a 2014 Institute of Medicine report, Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Military and Veteran Populations: Final Assessment. The Institute of Medicine estimated a 7 to 20 percent incidence of PTSD in military personnel who had served since 9/11. In addition to covering PTSD, the media routinely run stories about suicide, addiction, depression, and readjustment problems among veterans and service members. Veterans’ advocacy groups sometimes paint much the same picture, seeking resources by stressing psychological injury, disability, and the general need, in the words of the American Legion, to “help our veterans heal.” Without any personal experience of veterans, it is hard for most citizens to put any of this in context. It’s why they find the occasional counter-narrative—“Hiring veterans is good business,” as the Starbucks CEO wrote in a recent Parade magazine article—oddly unintelligible, even contrived.