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On Listening to Veterans
By Jack Mallory
Veterans and active duty military can't be simplistically categorized as heroes or villains, truth-tellers or liars, any more than teenagers or any other group of Americans. What we have in common is our commitment, at some point in our lives and with varying degrees of free will, to serve society, to the point of putting our lives at risk.
We are human beings: family, friends, strangers. We don't want to be idealized, or condemned, judged and jammed into some box that fits an easy stereotype. Many of us simply, deeply, want to be understood by those whose tax dollars pay us, buy our weapons, and sometimes send us to war.
Americans do not understand the experiences of their military. The lack of understanding that separates us and the rest of society is both cause and effect of our difficulty in talking with you frankly and honestly. We have trouble speaking the words, and you would have trouble listening to them if we could utter them. We live in a society that does not speak our language, and we form a culture that you have never lived in. Making judgements of those whose language one doesn't speak or whose culture one doesn't know is a mistake.
The inability to communicate not only separates us from you but leaves those who have not served unable to comprehend what they are asking of future service members—future veterans—when they send them into harm's way. You ask your family, your friends, and complete strangers to risk harm and to cause harm, and to live with their own suffering and the suffering they have caused others, on into the future.
Given what you ask your military to do, you owe them at least the opportunity to tell their stories without prejudging or trying to fit their experiences into your own limited perspectives. You may benefit from hearing what they have done for you. They may benefit from the effort to assemble their understanding and transmit it to you—often our own understanding comes in the telling. And our society will benefit from having a more realistic framework within which to make decisions about the price of war.
Jack Mallory is a long-time VVAW member. He served in Vietnam 69-70 and joined VVAW in 1970. He's also an archaeologist, an educator, and a dad. Like Superman, fighting for truth, justice, and his own version of the American way. He won't claim to be winning, but WTF else can he do?