Americans don’t know much about the military.
That’s not surprising. In the era of the all-volunteer military, those who serve in the armed forces make up only a tiny fraction of the overall population (roughly one-half of one percent). There are far more veterans than active-duty service members, but veterans still make up only about 13 percent of the total population, and their numbers are shrinking as those who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam grow older.
The majority of living veterans served in wars that most Americans now consider part of our history, not part of our present: While Americans over 60 account for less than 20 percent of the general population, roughly half the U.S. veteran population is over 60.
Little wonder, then, that the average American knows little about the military and even less about those who serve.
This doesn’t stop most of us from forming strong opinions, of course. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any concrete knowledge, many Americans — and certainly many in the media — fall back on comfortable but dangerously distorted myths about those who serve. Lacking examples of human complexity, we turn service members into stock characters in well-worn narratives: the Hero, the Villain, the Victim.
Each stereotype draws on kernels of truth, but each is far more distorting than illuminating. Together, they make it remarkably difficult to have a nuanced or clear-headed national conversation about our military and its role in society.
You know this one: It’s a favorite trope of the political center and right, and since 9/11 it’s become part of our official national narrative. Those who serve are “brave warriors who are risking their lives on behalf of the American people.” A “grateful nation” is “inspired by (their) sacrifice.” Those killed in America’s wars are “heroes, each and every one,” says President Barack Obama.
The key terms in this narrative are “courage,” “sacrifice,” “selflessness” and “heroism” — the characteristics said to inhere in every member of the armed forces — along with “gratitude,” the emotion the rest of us are officially dedicated to feeling. These terms are reshuffled endlessly in speech after speech, each apparently compiled by functionaries issued with the same short thesaurus.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reminds us that “the peace and the liberty we enjoy each and every day were made possible by the devotion and sacrifice of a long line of brave men and women in uniform.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explains, “Our brave men and women in uniform continue to protect the freedoms declared by our Founding Fathers more than two centuries ago.”
These have long been staple sentiments of Memorial Day and Veterans Day speeches, but since 9/11 they’ve also become standard rhetorical fare in virtually every corner of mainstream American culture. The American Red Cross urges Americans to send “holiday mail for heroes.” Veterans’ groups urge employers to participate in “hire a hero” job fairs, and injured service members are referred to as “wounded warriors,” regardless of whether their MOS involved combat operations or service in a marching band.
Meanwhile, enthusiastic displays of public gratitude have become de rigueur, from saccharine renditions of “thank you for your service” to the peculiar insistence of major airlines that “uniformed military personnel” must be permitted to board planes first, before the elderly, the disabled, and parents with infants and young children — a practice that embarrasses many in the military.
On the political left, there’s far more skepticism about the “every man and woman in uniform is a hero” narrative. Many on the left fall back on an opposing stereotype: the soldier as villain. (In popular mythology, everyone in the military is a grunt; airmen and sailors are too complicated to fit into the picture.) In this narrative, those in the military aren’t heroes at all — instead, they’re enthusiastic purveyors of brutality on behalf of a hegemonic hyper-power. They join the military not out of duty or selfless patriotism, but for the sheer sadistic fun of it: the desire to dominate “ragheads,” urinate on the Quran and engage in socially sanctioned acts of brutality.
“Nobody has yet proved that abusive men ... seek out the military — attracted by its violent culture — but several scholars suspect that this is so,” Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict suggests darkly.
Like the “soldier as hero” stereotype, the stereotype of the soldier as brutal killer has a long pedigree. In the United States, it reached its apotheosis during the Vietnam War, a conflict that came to be typified, in the popular imagination, by images of napalm and My Lai.
It’s gone underground to some extent — displaced by the post-9/11 lionization of the military — but it remains persistent in certain quarters on the left, fed by the intermittent scandals and crimes that have accompanied America’s long war on terror.
Abu Ghraib reinvigorated this stereotype with images of naked Iraqis shivering with cold and fear before sneering young American soldiers. More recently, it’s been fed by the murderous rampage of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who killed 16 Afghan villagers, and the 2010 revelations that some members of the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade killed Afghan civilians “for sport.”
Even the recent military sexual abuse scandal has fed into this stereotype about military personnel. Amu Baghwati, executive director of the Servicewoman’s Action Center, describes the military as “a culture rife with sexism, rape jokes, pornography.”
In this vision of the American military, there’s nothing resembling heroism or sacrifice; instead, there’s endless suspicion and boundless brutality.
Others reject both the “soldier as hero” narrative and the “soldier as villain” narrative, preferring what may look like a tempting middle ground. In this final stereotype, individual service members are viewed as ignorant pawns, duped into military service to their own eternal detriment.
This narrative also has deep roots. It’s the narrative of the conscript army, in which recruits are hapless cannon fodder, killing and dying for someone else’s greed. And as with the “soldier as hero” and “soldier as villain” myths, proponents of this narrative can find some evidence on which to draw.
In the Vietnam era, the sons of the poor and the working class found themselves in humid, lethal jungles, drafted, while their middle- and upper-class peers received college deferments. Today, there’s no longer a draft, but scholars still warn of an ongoing “poverty draft,” and many Americans continue to believe that the military is made up disproportionately of the poor and uneducated (despite evidence to the contrary).
In this version of the story, military personnel may oppress others, but they do so because they’ve been involuntarily brutalized, tricked or brainwashed themselves. War “dehumanizes soldiers,” writes Henry Giroux in the Monthly Review. “It is this brutalizing psychology of desensitization, emotional hardness, and the freezing of moral responsibility that is particularly crucial to understand.”
Once “desensitized,” soldiers may engage in “mind-numbing violence, war crimes and indiscriminate military attacks on civilians,” but “collateral damage has also come home with a vengeance as soldiers returning from combat are killing themselves at record rates and committing mayhem — particularly sexual violence and spousal and child abuse.”
It’s a grim portrait of victimization and dysfunction. In this narrative, the young, the poor and the ignorant join the military because they have no other options; after a brutalizing training period, they’re shipped off to serve as unwitting agents of oppression. Then, conscience-stricken and tormented, they develop post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse comrades and families, become suicide-prone, and end up vulnerable to substance abuse, homelessness, and unemployment.
THE ELUSIVE TRUTH
Military personnel aren’t all heroes: The military contains many men and women who demonstrate extraordinary courage and selflessness, but like any organization made up of human beings, it also contains its fair share of bureaucrats, jerks, slackers and criminals. Military personnel aren’t all villains, either: Some members of the military have committed terrible crimes, and some of these crimes have been enabled by those high up the chain of command, but most military personnel conduct themselves with decency and common sense, and many in the military have spoken out against brutality and corruption — some risking their lives and careers to protect Iraqi and Afghan civilians or speak out against other forms of internal corruption and abuse.
Finally, members of the military aren’t all victims: While some join the military out of economic desperation or end up struggling with PTSD and substance abuse, the military is a far more diverse cross-section of the general population than most Americans assume, and on the whole, post-9/11 veterans report extremely positive military experiences.
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as a counselor to the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a State Department senior adviser. She wrote this for Foreign Policy.