THR Web Features   /   April 7, 2015

The Troubled Stranger

A Korean War veteran, left, places a wreath during an event marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement July 27, 2013, at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

One of the contributors to this image of the “troubled stranger” is the PTSD classification itself, the catch-all of all catch-all categories. First, the meaning of the triggering event, the trauma, has expanded to a wider range of negative incidents and become increasingly inclusive with each edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since the original definition appeared in 1980. In the current formulation, one might experience the triggering event, witness the event, learn about the event, or have intense exposure to aversive details of the event. Second, the criteria and symptoms of PTSD make it exceedingly amorphous. In a 2013 paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers found that for the DSM-IV (1994) there were nearly 80,000 possible combinations of symptoms that met the diagnostic criteria. Major depressive episode, by contrast, allowed of 227 possible combinations. The DSM-5, published in 2013, made matters worse: Now there are 636,120 ways to have PTSD.

An article in Time magazine, published when the DSM-5 was released, applauded the new criteria for making it easier for service members to be diagnosed. The criteria will make it easier, that is, for them to gain access to mental health services for a service-related problem. While that is a good thing, and the impetus for defining PTSD in the first place, it comes at a cost. PTSD homogenizes suffering by masking the variety of people’s responses to significant stressors. It thereby impedes progress in the diagnosis and treatment of stress-related problems, not to mention their prevention. It is perhaps telling that in the Institute of Medicine report, neither the Department of Defense nor the Department of Veterans Affairs, despite having spent vast sums, was able to say whether its treatments for PTSD were effective. Conflating meaningful differences within a single diagnostic category also creates the distinct public impression that every sort of adjustment or emotional effect of service is a manifestation of a chronic and debilitating mental illness. This, in turn, fosters the stereotype of the traumatized and scarred veteran that subtly shapes our thinking.

If media and other representations are one source of the troubled stranger image, its currency owes much to the condition of service in an “all-volunteer force.” Americans, including our political leaders, have made a concerted effort to separate support for our troops, symbolically and financially, from deep ambivalence toward our wars. In the Pew survey, for instance, 45 percent of the general public respondents took the position that neither the war in Afghanistan nor the one in Iraq had been worth the cost. Post-9/11 veterans were only marginally more supportive, with 50 percent and 44 percent endorsing the respective actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fully one-third of the veterans believed that neither war had been worth the cost. These are retrospective opinions, of course, but Gallup surveys found that by the summer of 2004, little more than a year after the onset of the Iraq War, a majority of Americans were already calling it a mistake. So where does that leave us?

In liberal democracies like ours, citizenship is now understood far less in terms of duties and obligations than in those of rights and freedoms. Citizens have no actual duty to serve their country, much less put themselves in harm’s way or kill people in its name. With the draft a relic of a bygone era, military service has become a species of volunteerism. Yet the military is not some gap-year program or Teach for America stint. There is no spreadsheet of risks and purely personal rewards that makes serving in the military, in wartime, a rational choice or a just moral action. The sacrifices, up to and including one’s life, and the taking of others’ lives, can only derive their meaning and legitimacy from something larger than the self. With an “all-volunteer force,” the nation provides neither that definition—as recruiting slogans such as “Be all you can be” and “An Army of one” make sadly clear—nor that legitimation. This leaves those who serve looking duped or desperate, on the wrong end of a faulty social contract. And it may leave us, who haven’t served or made any real sacrifices, with a troubled conscience. Instead of righting the contract, we vote for more benefits.

Joseph E. Davis is the publisher of The Hedgehog Review. This article originally appeared in “Too Much Information,” our Spring 2015 issue. To order this issue, click here.