For many Americans, Veterans Day is an all too rare invitation to consider the sacrifices made by those who have served in the armed forces. Many have noted that the all-volunteer nature of today’s professional military, representing less than 1 percent of Americans, has deepened the civilian-military divide. The fact that a majority of volunteers come from military families only exaggerates the issue; a growing number of Americans have no direct link to the military.
In this context, many veterans find it difficult to reintegrate into civilian communities. Respondents to the 2017 Wounded Warrior Project survey reported significantly higher levels of social isolation and lower perceived social support compared to the general population. The qualitative data from the survey illustrates how, for many veterans, a general sense of alienation from civilian society contributes to these trends. “The hardest part is dealing with people who don't know what you go through and can't understand,” wrote one respondent. “Coming home to a totally different culture and way of thinking can be very challenging.” Another lamented “the failure to find individuals in the civilian populous that hold the same values, morals, ethics, beliefs, mentality, cohesiveness, and camaraderie.” Others complained of “feeling unimportant, neglected, underrepresented, underappreciated, [and] disrespected.”
NEH’s Dialogues on the Experience of War programs empower communities and institutions across the country to more fully support and integrate their veterans using humanities resources. The national program brings veterans and civilians together to discuss novels, memoirs, poetry, art, music, and films that help veterans process their experiences and share their stories.
For example, at Governors State University outside Chicago, student veterans were trained to lead weekly discussion groups for undergraduates. They reflected upon the program’s success bridging the civilian-military divide at a town hall event broadcast via public television and Youtube that culminated the initial program. “As a veteran, you are not always comfortable to share your experience with non-veterans, but this class has made me more comfortable,” reflected one facilitator. “The students helped me to share. I think it will make me a whole lot more confident to discuss things outside of the school setting with other non-veterans.” Another veteran facilitator from the program concurred: “I’ve had more conversations about my experience during this 8-week period than I’ve had in maybe 10 years. It just keeps coming out. And I’ve been grabbing other [veterans outside the program] and bringing them along and challenging them to talk about what they experienced.”
The conversations facilitated by Dialogues programs are crucial for veterans and civilians alike. For non-veteran participants, the sharing of stories makes experiences of war and homecoming more accessible. “Collectively, we revere and love to cheer for ‘The Troops,’ but we pay little attention to what we ask them to do, and we have a shallow understanding of what it means to experience war,” writes Scott Glew for the Minnesota Humanities Center, which has hosted two Dialogues programs. “The humanities can help to bridge the divide between citizens and their military.” While Civilian participants often note with appreciation how their assumptions about veterans have been challenged, they are also often surprised by how much they can relate to soldiers’ experiences. According to Keith Brown, co-director of the Dialogues program at Brown University, the program helps civilians to “recognize that ideas deeply revered by military personnel – service, honor, loyalty, duty, and sacrifice – are not confined to the military.”
At the same time, “civilians can offer unique perspectives and validate the experiences and emotions of veterans,” reflected one marine veteran participant. “Veterans need to know their experiences aren’t solely theirs. They need to understand they are not alone and they belong in their communities.” Through Dialogues on the Experience of War, the NEH ensures that message reverberates across the country, not just once or twice a year, but all year long.
Thumbnail image: Image Courtesy of The Telling Project.