It’s been nearly 44 years since Edwin Starr hit the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with his re-recording of “War.” The song captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans that were embittered by the Vietnam War by begging the simple question, “War. What is it good for?” I’m sure this is the point at which you energetically responded with, “absolutely nothing!” in your head.
While I can’t help but agree with the pacifist sentiment expressed in the popular tune, I am left considering the effect of these words on so many veterans across the country. As Americans joined arms in unified opposition to the war, did any one person ever stop and ask how those in the service might respond to this disapproval? Instead of supporting some of the most patriotic individuals in our country, the public discredited the efforts of soldiers, labeling them as counterproductive and malicious.
This phenomenon of shaming veterans is not only disappointing, it’s a national disgrace.
Despite the valuable role that anti-war protest has played in America’s history, there is a fine line between criticizing the justifications for war as opposed to criticizing those involved in the war itself. More specifically, there is a difference between condemning seemingly unnecessary violence and condemning fellow Americans who have chosen to fight for freedom. In our country, the majority of voters elect most of the politicians that dictate our foreign policy, so, in many ways, the responsibility falls on our own shoulders.
Soldiers are agents of the war, but that does not mean they are responsible for its existence. Unfortunately, our society has historically demonized the people who took the country’s call to action. In 2007, columnist Seth Gitell wrote a revealing opinion piece for the New York Sun detailing firsthand accounts of public disrespect for veterans.
He discussed Rudy Loupias who fought in the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines at Dai Do in 1968. After returning home, Loupias often hid his bravery out of fear of being labeled a “baby killer,” a common insult expressed toward veterans after the Vietnam War. Instead of finding pride in his patriotism, he was led to feel shame for simply following orders.
Loupias was one of millions of people throughout history to leave behind his family, home and comfort of everyday life, and yet, he was treated like a dissenter in his own country — a country that he risked his life to protect. The disgusting behavior displayed by his community deeply affected his ability to feel confident and appreciated, a feeling no veteran should have to experience.
At this point, you may be shrugging off this example as indicative of a different time in American history, and while that is true in some ways, the social stigma associated with being a veteran persists. The academic journal Social Problems published a 2013 study called “Attitudes toward U.S. Veterans Returning from Iraq,” and the results proved that Americans still display a level of disrespect toward veterans. While the study did not indicate hateful attitudes toward veterans, it demonstrated the belief that mental disorders and veterans are often closely linked.
While it is true that Posttraumatic Stress Disorder appears most frequently in veterans, survey respondents also associated substance abuse and domestic violence with being a soldier. This social stigma often haunts veterans throughout their lives, leading others to view them as potentially unstable or disturbed. Regardless of how accurate these beliefs may or may not be, it is critical that Americans work to promote a cultural shift from these negative associations to positive ones in regards to soldiers.
Instead of asking a veteran about the horrors they experienced in war, ask them about the pride they felt when coming home. Work to constantly show gratitude to these patriots, because the price they pay for your freedom is often significant. This can be done with a simple “thank you” when seeing a person in uniform or even refuting your friends when they begin to discuss the associations that many people still unfairly project onto veterans.
While I cannot speak from personal experience, it seems that being a veteran can be extremely difficult. Many people, myself included, cannot fathom the inhumanity of war, so we should make our best effort to mitigate the pain that veterans feel. This can be done in any variety of ways from supporting events conducted by your local chapter of the American Legion or lobbying for better mental healthcare for veterans after their service.
Opposing the concept of war is not a bad idea, but you should express your concerns to your state and national representatives. They have more power to create change and, more importantly, should take responsibility when your concerns are underrepresented.
Veterans have done their part in serving our country, so it’s time we do ours and change the way we think about and treat our brave soldiers. On behalf of myself and those that share my opinion, thank you to all those who have served. You never stopped fighting for me, so I promise I will never stop fighting for you.
Daniel Coffey studies journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TheSagebrush.com.