Since I visited Viet Nam two years ago I have been advocating for civilians to take a stronger role in assuming responsibility for war. That visit prompted me to ponder the legacy that my generation not only still carries but that is being passed on to younger generations. If civilians are more willing to hear the truth about war, I have been saying, perhaps those who fight will be better able to heal and all of us will be better able to find solutions to problems without resorting so quickly to war.
Advocating is one thing. Making it work on the ground is quite another. If civilians should be doing a better job of supporting veterans, what, exactly, does that mean?
I have asked this question of a number of people and gotten what seems to me to be almost random answers. One Vietnam veteran (who still complains, 40 years later, about the reception he received) said civilians should throw a party. An activist said to “find a veteran and offer to hear their story.” Another Vietnam veteran, when asked what veterans most needed when they returned answered, “a job.”
None of these suggestions is frivolous and each has a place, but each also seems limited and potentially problematic. At least to me. A party is fine, for instance, but all too often there is an expectation that the party is to welcome back the same person that left and that person may have undergone profound changes that cannot be honored with confetti and will take time to sort through. Such a party could provide the setting for someone to offer to hear the veteran’s story but it just seems to me there are too many ways that could go wrong. And yes, a job is important for anyone, but the average civilian is not an employer. Is it any wonder that well-meaning people buy ribbons and decals? It is something they can do.
So the news stories and the statistics and the commissions and the speeches are good for raising awareness but then what? A sense of urgency is all very well but what if it works? What if ordinary, untrained, good-hearted civilians show up saying, “Here I am. I want to do something to make this better. Where do I start?” What is the answer?
Most civilians are not going to give up their lives to become volunteers at the VA or something comparable. They are not going to become some kind of military auxiliary or attend weekend retreats. They are going to carry on with their civilian lives – and that is how it should be. If civilians are going to do a better job of connecting to veterans, they need to do it as civilians. That’s the point. It doesn’t help to bridge the civilian-military gap if civilians lose their identity.
Veterans need roles in civilian life that are more meaningful than being paraded at sporting events. Civilians need ways to respond to veterans that get beyond the extremes of jingoism on the one hand and avoidance on the other. We all need to have adult conversations about how to handle war and it seems to me that civilians would do better at their part if they had an idea how to get started.