Outside the margins of eras

Book review of 'Service Denied'

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The marginalized veteran is “denied by veterans’ institutions, ignored by the public, or overlooked by scholars,” say the two editors who fill the latter occupational specialty. 

“None of this is accidental,” they write. “Veteranhood is an intrinsically and historically unequal social construction,” and historians must “grapple with the policies and prejudices that silence large groups of vets in the first place.”

In “Service Denied: Marginalized Veterans in Modern American History,” John M. Kinder and Jason A. Higgins present the context and the collection of 11 reports by academics (including themselves). At least three of the 11 contributors served in uniform.

Some of the groups included in the survey are not surprising, such as women, Black people, and gay people. Others are likely to open eyes: Incarcerated veterans, Vietnam POWs, Republican anti-drafters, and bedwetters. (Who knew?)

The volume aspires to prompt a wider pursuit of remedies both social and practical. “Politicians can’t – or more accurately, won’t – do it on their own. Scholars of war and veterans have a vital role” and a responsibility to remind the public that veterans are not monolithic, and that they are not always compensated with alacrity or fairness.

Such educating is not easy, the book notes. For example, “Hollywood spotlights a relatively narrow population of young white men who spend their war years firing guns,” and many historians follow “a similar impulse.” “Service Denied” succeeds in trying to combat the stereotype, “to ‘unsettle’ assumptions.” The studies refute generalities and try to “move marginalized veterans closer to the center of modern American history” in a documented and well-meaning if not always apolitical direction.

Here are the topics in order of appearance:

  • Spanish-American warriors:  In 1918, “a much larger veteran cohort had replaced the men of 1898 in the American public’s mind,” and the nation “believed these men were less worthy of the nation’s . . . financial largesse.” In 1925, an American Legion official reminds United Spanish War Veterans in search of assistance that “every bit of beneficial legislation for ex-servicemen since the beginning of time has been the result of political force.” (Nearly 100 years later, his remarks resonate at the passing of the PACT Act of 2022.)
  • New world for ‘New Negro’: In 1919, 380,000 African Americans leave the armed forces. “Many white Americans perceived Black veterans’ reappearance in Southern cities and towns while wearing the nation’s uniform as a dire threat to the entire Jim Crow status.” The chapter focuses on the still-unpublished memoir by World War I veteran Jesse Lee Fraser. He and others see “glimmers of democracy” when among French people – and “bouts of racism” within the ranks. 
  • Psychiatric care and World War I: Many veterans with psychological needs face “stigma and condescension” because their wounds are “socially uncomfortable and difficult to treat with conventional medicine.” Instead, soldiers are encouraged to disregard their pain and maintain “masculine dignity.” (Recommended reading: Pat Barker’s 1991 novel, “Regeneration,” about poets who are recovering in a British veterans hospital.)
  • No place for enuresis: The subject – “the yellow stain of unmanly failure” – remains an uncomfortable one in polite company, even now. Service members discharged for bedwetting are marginalized by “the ethos of masculine toughness that continues to dominate veteran culture.” Having little formal support, veterans go online to “destigmatize” enuresis, but social-media discussions do not equal official policy changes.
  • Chicanos and GI Bill: The chapter offers a look at how three generations (from 1944 to 1974) utilize the benefits of the GI Bill, and how the numbers “champion the transformative potential” for Mexican-American veterans.  
  • Red, white, and blue – and lavender: Before 1940, the military cared not about sexual orientation. But in World War II the Army discharges 5,000 gay soldiers and the Navy lets 4,000 gay sailors go. The mini-history of discrimination notes impeached former Commander in Chief Donald Trump’s financial concern about transgender troops – despite related healthcare costs’ being negligible.
  • POWs as pawns: Not every prisoner of war in Vietnam is a James Stockdale or a John McCain. The focus here is on two African-American, two Mexican-American, and four white members of the Peace Committee of Southeast Asia, whose work brands them as “traitors and cowards” but whose “histories unravel the myth of the homogenous POW experience.”
  • Women in Vietnam: Operating-room nurse Lynda Van Devanter lands in Vietnam in 1969. A decade later she accompanies her radio-writer husband when he interviews members of a new organization, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). The talk is cathartic. Van Devanter opens up, and VVA – having “forgotten the women with whom they had served” – creates a Women’s Veterans Project. Together they expand “understandings of the definition of ‘veteran’.”
  • Anti-draft GOP: As early as 1965, conservative Republicans – “the sort who never experienced the sting of inequality” – begin making the case that conscription is un-American and forces men to make quick choices to avoid the draft. Powerful people listen, and President Nixon creates an all-volunteer force in 1973. One effect? The military learns “to recruit from populations that in many ways were already marginalized” by their lack of access to the kinds of resources utilized by Republicans. 
  • On guard and in reserve: Because they are “more heavily deployed than at a point in the preceding half century,” economic precarity is “a built-in feature” for guard and reserve members who serve in Iraq and-or Afghanistan. The chapter looks at inequities regarding benefits – and at how “conservative lawmakers repeatedly refused to accede to any legislation that would offer financial relief to these soldiers.”
  • Serving in prison: The chapter focuses on three African Americans and “military-related trauma, racial inequality, and systemic injustice.” Such prisoners are “expunged from American national memory,” and many do not self-identify as veterans because of fear (of losing benefits) and shame. There’s hope: Veterans treatment courts promise a new way to treat “the underlying conditions of criminality.”

What’s next?

Kinder and Higgins call for research about indigenous veterans and victims of service-related sexual trauma. And there’s a byproduct to their publication – an unstated invitation to any reader, veteran or civilian, to learn more about and do more for veterans on the periphery.

Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).