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After Johnny’s Marched Home: Military Veterans and the Shaping of American Politics

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Arthur Clifton Goodwin, Liberty Loan Parade, 1918In the American Interest, Program Manager Rebecca Burgess writes that as reflections of Americans at large, the citizen-soldier turned citizen-veteran has endured not as a threat to the American democratic nation, but perhaps as its greatest tribute:

Turning citizens into soldiers and soldiers back into citizens had been a democratic experiment, championed by General Washington, which on the whole the young nation had successfully managed following its first, Revolutionary War. Neither the larger numbers of combatants nor the scale—in both territory and violence—of the Civil War had upset Americans’ conviction about the citizen-veteran.

What Americans were less certain about was how to materialize the debt owed to citizen-soldiers who had defended their collective rights and property. The nation was equally undecided about what concrete payment gratitude and a democratic justice demanded for military veterans. The core tenants of a liberal democracy complicate such questions, since military service is not simply the ultimate expression of civic virtue but is also the highest duty of citizenship, one the country has a right to invoke in its times of need. Whether volunteered virtue should trump conscripted duty from the standpoint of the federal ledger books, or vice-versa, is not obvious.

With every major military conflict involving Americans the nation has reevaluated its relationship with the veteran, partly in consequence of the demands each specific war required it to lay upon the soldier in the first place. The changing face of industrialized society and the technologies of war as well as political thought have influenced each generation’s consensus, reflected just in the range of pension legislation alone: The early practice of granting only disability pensions to war veterans grew to include service pensions after the War of 1812, to professional or vocational training after World War I, to college tuition assistance and low-interest home loans after World War II, and finally to all who have served in uniform, whether during war or peacetime. The new dynamics of an all-volunteer military, established in 1973, have further affected national attitudes toward the citizen-soldier turned citizen-veteran, although perhaps less visibly given that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population now serves in the armed forces—even during wartime.

How veterans themselves have responded to their new status as citizen-soldiers turned soldier-citizens has traditionally reflected national attitudes. Beyond any affects of combat, the equation of individual civic duty and civic virtue and the nation’s reciprocal duty and virtue has influenced—although not dictated—veterans’ social and political behavior. Aside from the significant role citizen-soldiers fill in defending the country, citizen-veterans have played a defining role in the shaping of American political culture that has not been widely appreciated. The combined circumstances of the polarized electorate and the estimated already 2.6 million soldiers of the post-9/11 wars who have returned to civilian status recently—in private ceremonies on guarded bases far away from the public eye—highlight the value of a modest conceptual review of veterans and politics in America.

Read the whole essay here.