by Allan Branstiter
This past Tuesday, half-term governor Sarah Palin endorsed fellow reality TV star and demagogue Donald Trump for president of the United States of America. That same day, her son Track, an Iraq war veteran, was arrested for drunkenly assaulting his girlfriend with an AR-15 and attempting to prevent her from reporting it to the police. At a press conference the next day, Sarah Palin addressed “the elephant in the room” and used her son’s alleged domestic violence incident as a platform to blame Obama for not supporting the troops, especially those with PTSD.
“My son, like so many others,” she explained, “they come back a bit different. They come back hardened, they come back wondering if there’s respect for what it is their fellow soldiers and airmen and every other member of the military have so sacrificially given to this country.” Remarking that she could “related with other families who can feel these ramifications of PTSD and some of the woundedness our soldiers do return with,” she then turned to Obama as the root of the victimization of American veterans. “It starts from the top,” she concluded, “the question though, that comes from our own president, where they have to look at him and wonder, ‘Do you know what we have to go through?’”
In the days since, many veterans have rejected Palin’s statements. Liberal critics wuickly condemned her overtly partisan manipulation of veterans issues, while others (like Bill Maher) argued that Track’s actions were the product of poor parenting, not combat trauma. Some [see 1, 2] have even gone as far as to argue that Track Palin never saw combat and, therefore, is lying about having PTSD (recent studies have shown that 31% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD, including many who never saw combat). While the response to Palin’s remarks has been almost exclusively negative, she is tapping into a perception among conservatives that Obama and Democrats neither care or understand the military or veterans.
Whether or not Track Palin suffers from PTSD remains unknown. As a veteran who has been treated by the Army and the VA for anxiety issues in the field and at home, I’d hate to attempt to diagnose Palin from afar. However, there are some lessons to be garnered from Palin’s statements that have not been addressed by most observers, namely where her statements come from and their effect on public perceptions of veterans. Most people on the left side of the aisle have dismissed Palin’s remarks as a bald-face and shameless attack on Obama. And yet Palin is tapping into several less obvious ideological and cultural strains regarding the role of veterans in American life.
Sarah Palin’s statements tap into a long-standing view of the veteran as a “survivor hero.” According to historian and attorney Eric T. Dean in his study of mental trauma during the Civil War and Vietnam War, this mythic image emerged during the antiwar protests of the 1960s and gained additional meaning during the 1970s. Dean points out that by the Reagan presidency, “it became common in the United States to view the Vietnam veteran as beset by a wide range of problems and betrayed by his fellow citizens and government.” This image of the “survivor-as-hero” who fought a war they were not allowed to win and then attempted to piece their lives together in an ungrateful society was popularized by portrayals of veterans like John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in First Blood (1982), James Braddock (Chuck Norris) in Missing in Action (1984), and the entire cast of A-Team (1983-1987). While cinematic notions of the Vietnam veterans as damaged by war gained notoriety in essentially antiwar movies like Taxi Driver (1976) and The Deer Hunter (1978), the growing popularity of “survivor-as-hero” myth resonated with the “New Patriotism” of the 1980s.
In the early 1990s, the “survivor hero” myth was extended to a new crop of veterans returning home from the First Iraq War. While Americans repeated many of the mistakes from Vietnam in the country’s intervention in the Middle East (for example, believing that technological superiority, a destructive air campaign, and a ground invasion would allow the United States to secure a quick and inexpensive total victory), they were determined not to abuse this new war’s veterans as they believe they had done during Vietnam. Yellow ribbon campaigns were widespread and new “Welcome Home” festivities were planned for Vietnam veterans and Persian War veterans. The ground war in Iraq was quick and relatively bloodless, and friendly-fire incidents and growing rumors of Persian Gulf Syndrome failed to dampen the public’s belief that the victory had healed the old wounds of the Vietnam era. “It’s a proud day for America,” the elder Bush proclaimed, “and, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”
The “survivor-as-hero” myth largely went underground during the 1990s, but the specter of Vietnam loomed large in American political life. Americans largely stopped thinking about veterans and the effects of war; however, films like Forrest Gump (1994) continued to portray Vietnam veterans as victims of historical circumstances, while taking a somewhat ambivalent yet nostalgic view of the cultural and social conflicts of the 1960 and 1970s. Racial discord was boiled down to pithy lines like “Sorry I ruined your Black Panther party” and “Mama used to chase coons off the porch with a broom,” while Gump’s relationship with the slain black soldier, Bubba, embodied the Boomer’s belief that they, as a generation and regardless of race, had been victimized by an era they struggled to understand. Misunderstood by society and left to wander the backroads of America in search of meaning, the film ends with the proposition that love (especially in the case of Lt. Dan and his Vietnamese wife) and capitalist enterprise allowed the Vietnam generation to overcome their victimization.
Before and shortly after September 11, 2001, the efforts of Tom Hanks, Steven Speilberg, and Stephen Ambrose presented a heroic image of World War II’s veterans that altered the “survivor-as-hero” myth. In their film Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), the trio presented an image of World War II veterans as righteous warriors fighting and dying for liberty and their comrades-in-arms. These works not only allowed civilians to claim a sense of “true” understanding of war, but an empathetic sense of appreciation for the experiences of veterans. I remember pastors preaching about sacrifice, quoting Hanks as he whispered “Earn this” to a bewildered and potentially undeserving Matt Damon—who served as a stand in for the American people writ large. Inspired by these films and the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Americans adopted a version of the “survivor-as-hero” myth that emphasized the heroic traits of veterans, while aligning all anti-war critics as abusers of troops.
After 9-11, it became easy for Americans to conflate what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” and Time’s “The Next Greatest Generation.” When the U.S. invaded Iraq again in 2003, Americans imbued my generation of veterans with a sense of patriotic and godly virtue. Media sources scoured the front for anecdotes to link the Second Iraq War with the heady memory of World War II. Battlefield baptisms in Kuwait served to link our war to the perceived godly mission and religiosity of our predecessors. Online videos of surprise homecomings gained millions of views, while various Americans (veteran and civilian) promised to give us the hero’s welcome the Vietnam generation was not afforded. Meanwhile, Vietnam vets ate their own in 2004, when the Swift Boat Veterans for Peace helped torpedo John Kerry’s bid for president and called into question the acceptable definition of “veteran.” Meanwhile, the “survivor-as-hero” myth returned in full force as the public began to fixate on what they saw as a growing veterans crisis of unemployment, PTSD, domestic violence, and suicide. Despite the welcome home celebrations, the pro-soldier country music songs, and the widespread insistence that veterans enjoyed the full support of the American people, the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran came to be regarded as a psychiatric victim.
As Palin’s statement shows, who one believes is truly victimizing veterans depends largely on where one stands politically—clearly, the former governor blames Democrats and Obama in particular. While her willingness to blame the president for her son’s PTSD is disturbing and outrageous, it is important to understand that she is tapping into a extremely widespread and long-standing view of veterans as victims. As described above, Palin and the Right’s view of the veteran as a victimized “survivor hero” dates back to Vietnam.
The experience of the Vietnam War has created a view on the Right that all American veterans are suffering psychologically. To Palin and her ilk, veterans have been continually victimized by Democrats who never served in the military (while those who have are tarred as “fake veterans”). Rather than actually understanding the experience of veterans and PTSD, Republicans would rather repeat a well-worn myth that veterans are constantly in crisis. They blame the government and liberals for putting political interests above the welfare of soldiers (see: Benghazi) and ignoring veterans upon their return home.
What I find most unsettling about Palin’s remarks isn’t so much the fact that she uses PTSD to not only excuse her son’s actions, nor is it her blaming it on President Obama. What bothers me, and what I hope to remedy at least partially here, is the inability of many on the Left to understand why she would make such remarks and why so many on the Right accept them as truths. Since Vietnam, veterans and PTSD have slowly combined to popularize the view of the former as victims. Since 9-11, PTSD has transcended its definition with DSM Manual and become a cultural phenomenon. How people think about PTSD—its causes and effects—are largely shaped by the wholesale adoption of the “survivor-as-hero” myth into American political discourse. During the 1960s and 1970s, psychiatry used PTSD to criticize the military’s attempt to “salvage” traumatized soldiers in order to return them to combat. Later, PTSD was used to attempt to understand war’s effect on the individual soldier and create a more skeptical view of war. Today, PTSD is shaped largely by popular culture and the political Right, and images of veterans silently suffering from invisible wounds has become a useful political football. In most cases, I believe, Republicans have proven to be much more adept at exploiting the myth of the victimized veteran than Democrats.
In modern wars where there are relatively few American casualties, PTSD has become a kind of fetishistic totem. Burdened by the guilt of downplaying and stigmatizing mental trauma among servicemembers, the military has now attacked PTSD with a vengeance. Their response has been confused at times, ranging from over-diagnosis to inaction. Despite the military’s shortcomings, much of the blame for the “veteran’s crisis” is laid upon the Department of Veterans Affairs—an entity seen by most Americans as simultaneously bloated and underfunded. For their part, veterans have been all too willing to blame the VA for the failure of the government to live up to its obligation to their welfare.
Since Vietnam, veterans’ expectations for government assistance ranging from employment, education, medical care, and mental health have increased. Many veterans view themselves as a privileged class due to their collective sacrifice and their continued suffering. In the past, many benefits were limited to those who were physically disabled due to wounds. Since most veterans today were never wounded or even engaged in direct combat, there has been a tremendous amount of pressure (rightfully and wrongly) to expand the definition of sacrifice to include more veterans. Incapable and unwilling to criticize veterans for agitating for more benefits, the American people have embraced the “survivor hero” myth. As a result, we’ve reached a point where every veteran is seen as noble victim entitled to reparations.
In 1944, sociologist Willard Waller argued that “the veteran is always a powerful political force, for good or evil, because others cannot protect themselves from him. He has fought for the flag and has absorbed some of its mana. He is sacred. He is covered with pathos and immune from criticism.” For decades, conservative Americans have not only imbued veterans with the mythical power of the flag, they’ve also come to think that some of the very same mana has wiped off on them. Empowered as the true defenders of an oft-victimized class of citizen soldier, these hawks are free to characterize wars and those who fight them in terms of their own pleasing.
Veterans are just as culpable as folks like Trump and Palin for the politicization (and commodification) of PTSD and vets more generally; however, there is little incentive for them to challenge the “survivor-as-hero” myth. Just look at the cultural prevalence of anti-liberal (imagined or actual) “survivor heroes” like Marcus Lutrell and Chris Kyle.
The myth of the “survivor-as-hero” myth imbues all soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with the title of “veteran,” regardless of whether they saw combat. Military service is now seen as a “sacrifice,” even though many people continue to view enlistment as a net positive and a chance to gain upward mobility. The myth not only offers veterans with a heroic sense of themselves, it has also provided them with material benefits. Let me be clear, the damaged caused by wars, physically and psychologically, are very much real and often ill-served by the military and the VA. However, the extent to which veterans, their families, and their organizations exploit the “survivor-as-hero” myth to use the image of the victimized veteran in order to cudgel their political foes or position themselves as a kind of new minority class is not above criticism.
The fact remains that a large number of Americans believe that Obama and liberals are inflicting harm upon the country’s veterans. The fact remains a large number of veterans and their families believe that Palin is speaking on their behalf. The fact remains that the Left continues to fail to critique the “survivor hero” myth in any meaningful way because they hope that they, too, will one day be able to reap its rewards. The fact remains that Left-leaning veterans organizations continue to fail at providing a counterpoint to groups like the VFW and American Legion—groups dedicated to using this myth to privilege veterans over other groups. Until we can discuss this myth’s place in American history, culture, and political discourse, those sharing Palin’s sentiments will continue to wield influence over the nation’s foreign policy and view of military service. Failing to take on the myth of the victimized veteran robs vets of their agency, denies the important role they play in our political decisions, and fails those who need assistance the most.