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Soldiers after War

Soldiers after War

We shouldn't neglect what they have to teach us about citizenship.

Rebecca Burgess

Neither scarcity nor cost primarily fuelled the riotous energy of the crowd hoisting its cudgels to swarm the Capitol in the name of grain. Those were tangible-enough complaints, but food was merely the expression of a deeper-felt injury: the insult of being denied a role in political society. For that injury, the rioting Romans were determined to overthrow the entire government and eliminate the symbol, in their minds, of senatorial rule: Rome’s elite warrior, Coriolanus.

Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s tragic drama, is frequently taught as an Ur-text on civil-military relations, which explores the volatile tensions between the great- or spirited-souled individual on whom the city relies to defend it. A question posed by the play is this: Can an “absolute” warrior live peaceably in a civil society?

But the play also presents a larger Shakespearean argument, which may have more bearing on the situation of today’s warriors than does the character of the protagonist, Coriolanus. In the drama, Shakespeare asks what happens to a society when an identifiable subsection of it is effectively denied a political role within it. Shakespeare suggests that this kind of denial works a type of festering moral injury. But when that festering injury breaks open, politicians will hastily ascribe it to the absence of tangible benefits like money or health care rather than examine the underlying source.

Today we are likely to have heard of “moral injury” only for post-9/11 veterans. The term is used to describe some psychological aftershocks of a twenty-year war on terror, which these soldiers were burdened with fighting. We have assumed that such moral injury occurred while the soldiers were deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq. But what if we’ve missed a more hidden injury? What if it occurs less when a soldier deploys than afterwards, when the soldier officially separates from the military? In the process of separation, the soldier goes from having been intertwined in a national purpose to being shuffled aside and deposited into a “caste” of veterans—who are generally assumed, by the majority that has not served, to be too scarred to blend seamlessly back into civilian circles. Thus, in this view, they are to be placated by ever-increasing government benefits.

Soldiers and, so, veterans, are uniquely creatures of politics. The state calls their identity into being and then dismisses them, framing that identity with so many legislative words and regulations. Yet their official activity, however camouflaged by the facades of modern democratic institutions, is the rawest of all political activities, if we embrace Clausewitz’s dictum about war being “the continuation of politics through other means.” When soldiers are trained and deployed on the battlefield to close with and destroy an enemy, they are the physical executors of government power.

This training involves the cultivation of an Achillean thumos, or spiritedness, which enables them to do what they need to do in the face of death. Thinkers from Plato to sociologist Willard Waller have wrestled with the puzzle of how to understand thumos and how to deploy it toward civic ends after and outside a time of war. If soldiers are bred to a sense of great purpose, what happens when purpose disappears from their day-to-day lives?

As these thinkers have understood, spiritedness is a neutral force, but one that is always on the lookout, as it were, for a cause to serve.


George Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States, advised his veterans of the tense psychological dynamics they would face once they were separated from military service. He urged them to view their service as one rung of experience on the ladder of their personal identity and to direct their energies, as soon as they could, into industrial, commercial, and agrarian pursuits so as to “prove themselves not less virtuous and useful as Citizens, than they [were] persevering and victorious as soldiers.”

World War II veterans heeded similar advice: Nearly fifty percent of them eventually owned or operated businesses. Social scientist Robert Putnam has famously attributed America’s postwar civic vibrancy to the WWII generation’s purposeful communal engagement. This activity did not occur in a vacuum, however. It was a result of veterans being shown that their spiritedness could be deployed to benefit their communities—that veterans, in other words, could be social assets.

This is politics with a capital “P”—the type of communal activity, as Aristotle writes, toward which human beings yearn and in which they are designed to engage.

Since January 6, there has been much handwringing over the presence at the Capitol of military-related individuals, some of them ostensibly related to extremist groups. Yet the hand-wringers have not asked whether we have understood, over the past twenty or as many as fifty years, nearly the life span of our all-volunteer military, how to re-integrate a professional warrior caste full of spiritedness into the larger body politic, instead of publicly continuing to treat its members as a distinct minority made up of tragic patients. By ignoring this question, we have dismissed these warriors from the larger community to which they rightfully belong. Is it a wonder, then, that a small number of them, accustomed to seek a sense of identity through social purpose, respond positively when recruited to what looks like such a purpose?

In Coriolanus, the people acquire their own political officers, the tribunes, to be their voice. But Shakespeare shows how these tribunes, for their own political gain, manipulate the people to Rome’s detriment. Today’s American veterans, citizens of a liberal democracy, do not need or want political representatives separate from those of their civilian peers. Rather, they do need government and society to believe again, and routinely to adopt, a public narrative teaching that veterans can and should be social assets, with a community-building role to fulfill after their military service.

Rebecca Burgess is senior editor of American Purpose and managing director of the Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy Project. She’s currently writing a book on veterans and American political development.

DemocracyPolitical PhilosophyCulture

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