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Talking About War, Veterans, and Society’s Responsibility

April 3, 2016

On March 8, 2016, the Forum for Scholars and Publics hosted a panel discussion entitled, “Veterans Observed/Veterans Observing,” featuring veterans, scholars, writers, and artists.

By Margaret (Lou) Brown

Talking About War

Panelists brought different frameworks and experiences to the table.

Zoë Wool, a cultural anthropologist who recently published a book based on her research with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; Roy Scranton, a journalist, novelist, literary scholar focusing on early 20th-century war narratives, and Army veteran of the Iraq war; Shelly Rambo, a Christian theologian whose work focuses on religious responses to suffering and trauma and who has collaborated with military chaplains; and David Jay, a professional photographer whose “Unknown Soldier” series presents portraits of wounded American military veterans. The discussion was moderated by Michelle Lanier, oral historian and folklorist who teaches in Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, including teaching the “Veterans Oral History Project” course.

As the panelists presented their work and slid into conversation with one another, it became clear that they’re each struggling to make sense of similar issues through their diverse approaches. Roy Scranton talked about the “military-civilian divide” and his belief that the gap isn’t nearly as large as popular discourse claims it to be. Furthermore, the insistence on the breadth of the gap has large political implications — allowing civilians to maintain distance from the consequences of wars fought on their behalf – and more intimate, personal implications for those military veterans who are themselves also part of civilian life. Zoë Wool took this further, asking how, why, and to what effect do we make soldiers and veterans “extraordinary," insisting that their lives are unknowable to those among us who have not gone to war. Ultimately, she concluded, it’s “reneging of ethical responsibility to say something is unimaginable,” thus relieving ourselves of the burden of the real interconnectedness of military and civilian lives, in terms both of the veteran’s suffering and of the suffering of those who have been at the other end of our wars.

But, interconnectedness doesn’t imply only the mutual bearing of the veteran’s burden. Most importantly, it implies allowing for completeness: for the veteran to engage fully, even joyfully, in “civilian” life, a world which is rightly theirs, without the ever-present anxious gaze of their non-veteran companions focusing on the veteran’s presumed unknowable trauma. As Scranton said, for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it’s been hard to figure out a way to integrate the veteran experience into the civilian identity that doesn’t put the veteran experience at the fore, often in terms of trauma. Is it possible for the fact of military experience to be only incidental to a person’s story? Recognition of the constraining potential of the veteran label gives new meaning to the question David Jay had raised earlier in the evening, talking about the devastating injuries some of the soldiers had suffered. “How do you get past that?” Now, we realize that veterans must “get past” not only any wounds they’ve suffered and violent acts they’ve committed, but also the limited roles civilian society is allowing them to play.

Talking About WarThe military/civilian divide was one of many gaps the panelists are grappling with. Shelly Rambo is working through how to make room for the space between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, to allow Christ’s wound to remain instead of being quickly erased. This story of the victory of life over death elides any time for healing. This narrative thus creates what Rambo refers to as a “heavy weight” for those who have suffered trauma to bear, as there is no guidance for how to respond to lingering suffering, either in oneself or in others. This matters even to non-Christians because religious texts influence other, secular, narratives in society.

David Jay’s images beckon us across multiple gaps to give the viewer an intimate moment with the person in the photograph, to experience the unity of humanity. His goal is not to erase all the identities each person embodies to enable us to see small points of connection, but rather to make their complex wholeness accessible to us. He explained that he also uses his photography to try to understand the other person, a process which ultimately left him “more confused than ever” as he realized how many contradictions each person embodies. Moderator Michelle Lanier captured this beautifully when she listed what she saw in his images: rebellion, freedom, tenderness, strength, broken but resilient, connected, anger, surrender, weightlessness; a declarative, "I did this, this is me."

Talking About War

David Jay/The Unknown Soldier

Shelly Rambo concluded the evening’s discussion with the observation that all of the panelists are trying to think about how to tell stories, and are doing so in a way that is trying to bring the reader or viewer “closer to the surface of the skin” by drawing us near to the lives and experiences they are depicting. And they all agreed that once we’ve bridged the gap and recognized the common humanity military veterans and non-military civilians share — at both profound and mundane levels — we can no longer fail to recognize our responsibilities to one another.


Banner image by Jayel Aheram on Flickr, CC by 2.0.

Lou Brown

MARGARET (LOU) BROWN has worked for the last twenty years in interdisciplinary program development and community engagement. She holds a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, where she also taught and developed education and outreach programs in Anthropology, American Culture Studies, Social Thought and Analysis, and the Center for New Institutional Social Sciences. She is a Senior Research Scholar and the Director of Programs at the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke.