By Kelly DENTON-BORHAUG
I’m a civilian who, like many Americans, has strong ties to the U.S. Armed Forces. I never considered enlisting, but my father, uncles, cousins, and nephews did. As a child I baked cookies to send with letters to my cousin Steven who was serving in Vietnam. My family tree includes soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Some years before my father died, he shared with me his experience of being drafted during the Korean War and, while on leave, traveling to Hiroshima, Japan. There, just a few short years after an American atomic bomb had devastated that city as World War II ended, he was haunted by seeing the dark shadows of the dead cast onto concrete by the nuclear blast.
As Americans, all of us are, in some sense, linked to the violence of war. But most of us have very little understanding of what it means to be touched by war. Still, since the events of September 11, 2001, as a scholar of religion, I’ve been trying to understand what I’ve come to call “U.S. war-culture“.” For it was in the months after those terrible attacks more than 20 years ago that I awoke to the depth of our culture of war and our society’s pervasive militarization. Eventually, I saw how important truths about our country were concealed when we made the violence of war into something sacred. And most important of all, while trying to come to grips with this dissonant reality, I started listening to you, the veterans of our recent wars, and simply couldn’t stop.
Dismantling the Lies About and Justifications for Our Wars
The only proper response to 9/11, our political leaders assured us then, was war and nothing but war — “a necessary sacrifice,” a phrase they endlessly repeated. In the years that followed, in speeches and public spectacles, one particular image surfaced again and again. The lives — and especially injuries and deaths — of American soldiers were incessantly linked to the injuries inflicted on Jesus of Nazareth, and to his death on the cross. President George W. Bush, for example, milked this imagery in 2008:
This weekend, families across America are coming together to celebrate Easter… During this special and holy time of year, millions of Americans pause to remember a sacrifice that transcended the grave and redeemed the world… On Easter we hold in our hearts those who will be spending this holiday far from home — our troops… I deeply appreciate the sacrifice that they and their families are making… On Easter, we especially remember those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom. These brave individuals have lived out the words of the Gospel, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” [John 15:13 ]
The abusive exploitation of religion to bless violence covered the reality of war’s hideous destructiveness with a sacred sheen. And this justification for what quickly became known as the Global War on Terror troubled me, leaving me with many questions. I wondered: Is it true that we demonstrate what we most value in life by dying for it?
What about living for what we value most?
Biblical stories about the suffering and death of the distinctly nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth were shamelessly manipulated in those years to sacralize our wars and the religious among us largely failed to question such bizarre connections. Eventually, I began to understand that war cultures are by their nature death cults. The depth of the militarization of this country and the harshness of its wars abroad were concealed by converting death into something sacred. Meanwhile, the deaths of Afghans, Iraqis, and so many others in such conflicts were generally ignored. Tragically, religion proved an all-too-useful resource for such moral exploitation.
We civilians deceive ourselves by insisting that we’re a peaceful nation desiring the well-being of all peoples. In reality, the United States has built an empire of military bases (more than 750 at last count) on every continent but Antarctica. Our political leaders annually approve a military budget that’s apocalyptically high (and may reach a trillion dollars a year before the end of this decade). We spend more on our military than the next nine nations combined to finance the violence of war.
Our political leaders and many citizens insist that having such a staggering infrastructure of war is the only way Americans will be secure, while claiming that we’re anything but a warring people. Analysts of war-culture know better. As peace and conflict studies scholar Marc Pilisuk puts it: “Wars are products of a social order that plans for them and then accepts this planning as natural.”
Learning War Is Like Ingesting Poison
I’ve personally witnessed the confusion and conflicted responses of many veterans to this mystifying distortion of reality. How painful and destabilizing it must be to return from your military deployment to a society that insists on crassly celebrating and glorifying war, while so many of you had no choice but to absorb the terrible knowledge of what an atrocity it is. “War damages all who wage it,” chaplain Michael Lapsley wrote. “The United States has been infected by endless war.” Veterans viscerally carry the violence of war in their bodies. It’s as if you became “sin-eaters” who had to swallow the evil of the conflicts the United States waged in these years and then live with their consequences inside you.
Worse yet, most Americans refuse to face our national reality. Instead, they twist such truths into something else entirely. They distance themselves from you by labeling you “heroes” and the “spine of the nation.” They call war’s work of death the epitome of citizenship. They don’t want to know how often and how deeply you were afraid; how conflicted you were about life-and-death decisions you had to make when no good choice was available. They don’t want to hear, as one veteran said recently in my presence, that too often your lives “were dealt with carelessly.”
They also don’t want to hear about the military training that shaped you to deal carelessly with the lives of others, both combatants and civilians. Those are inconvenient details that get in the way of a national adulation of war (in a draft-less country where 99% of all citizens remain civilians). After all, war fever means good business for the weapons makers of the military-industrial complex. As Pentagon expert William Hartung recently put it, “The Biden administration has continued to arm reckless, repressive regimes” globally, while its military support for Ukraine lacks any diplomatic strategy for ending that war, instead “enabling a long, grinding conflict that will both vastly increase the humanitarian suffering in Ukraine and risk escalation to direct U.S.-Russian confrontation.”
Such complexities involving alternatives to Washington’s war-making urges are, of course, not part of the national conversation on Veterans Day. Instead, we are promised that war and this country’s warriors will somehow redeem us as a nation. The unimaginable losses to families, communities, infrastructure, and culture in the lands where such conflicts have been fought in this century are invisible to most citizens, while typical Veterans Day commemorations recast you as messianic redemptive figures who “have paid the price for our freedom.”
But to convert war-making into something sacred means fashioning a deceitful myth. Violence is not a harmless tool. It’s not a coat that a person wears and takes off without consequences. Violence instead brutalizes human beings to their core; chains people to the forces of dehumanization; and, over time, eats away at you like acid dripping into your very soul. That same dehumanization also undermines democracy, something you would never know from the way the United States glorifies its wars as foundational to what it means to be an American.
Silencing and Commodifying Veterans
Meanwhile, citizens rush to “thank you for your service.” You’re allowed to board airplanes first and given discounts at the nation’s amusement parks. Veterans Day only exacerbates your sickening commodification, as all those big box stores, other corporations, and financial institutions use you to try to increase their profits (like the bank in my town last year with its newspaper ad: “Freedom isn’t Free: Veterans Paid Our Way. Thank you. Embassy Bank”).
These dynamics silence the truths you carry within you. I’ve heard you say that you often find it impossible to tell the rest of us, even family members, what really happened. You struggle with feelings of alienation from civilian culture, unable to express your anger or describe your struggles with deep-seated shame, guilt, resentment, and disgust.
Your military service often left you with debilitating physical and psychological injuries and even deeper “moral injuries.” Veteran and author Michael Yandell struggles to describe this ruinous self-disintegration, writing “I despaired of myself, and of the very world.” Born out of the crushing suffering that is the world of war, some of you experienced moral pain that grew to an intolerable level. There was no longer any world left that you could trust or believe in, no values anywhere, anymore. And yet, you represent such a small percentage of the population — less than 1% of us join the military — while disproportionately shouldering such a painful legacy from the last 20 years of American war-making across significant parts of the planet.
More often than not, the invisible wounds of returning veterans are shrouded in silence. For some of you, unbearable pain led to disastrous consequences, including self-harm, loss of relationships, isolation, and self-destructive risk-taking. At least one in three female members of the armed forces has experienced sexual assault or harassment from fellow service members. More than 17 of you veterans take your own lives every day. And you live with all of this, while so much of the rest of the nation fails to muster the will to see you, hear you, or face honestly the American addiction to war.
The truths about war that you might tell us are generally rejected and invalidated, cementing you into a heavy block of silence. Military chaplain Sean Levine describes how the U.S. must “deny the trauma of its warriors lest that trauma radically redefine our understanding of war.” He continues, “Blind patriotism has done inestimable damage to the souls of thousands of our returning warriors.”
If we civilians paid attention to your honesty, we would find ourselves slammed headlong into a conflict with a national culture that glorifies war, conceals the political and material interests of the titans of weaponry and war production, and successfully distracts us from the depth of its destruction. We civilians are complicit and so lurch away from facing the inevitable revulsion, sorrow, mourning, and guilt that always accompany the reality of war.
An Alternative for Veterans Day
Honestly, the only way forward is for you to tell — and us to compassionately take in — the unadulterated stories of war. One Vietnam veteran vividly described what war did to him this way:
I went to war when I was a little over twenty — not a child, but not yet an adult. When I arrived at the Cleveland airport after my tour of duty in Vietnam, I just sat down paralyzed with befuddled emotions. I didn’t even call my parents to tell them I was home. I was afraid my family would expect to see the person I was, and not accept the person I had become; that they would not forgive me for what I had done and not done in Vietnam. How could they when I couldn’t forgive myself? Like some toxic virus morphing in a Petri dish, the war infected my moral DNA. I came home no longer thinking with the same mind, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears.
When you speak out and tell truths this way, you exemplify the epitome of citizenship, as well as courage, vulnerability, and a commitment to hope. Such revelations show that the light of your conscience wasn’t quashed by war. Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Buddhist international peace activist, pointed the way forward for veterans and the rest of us alike when he wrote:
Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war.
The resulting trauma from war’s inevitable dehumanization is not yours alone. War-culture in this country leaves us with a residual collective trauma that weighs us all down and is only made worse by a national blindness to it.
As a civilian on Veterans Day, I hope to support the creation of spaces where your voices resoundingly are heard, and your faces seen. Together, we must determine how best to do the work of rehumanizing our world. Jack Saul, from the International Trauma Studies Program, reminds us that listening is “deeply humanizing” because it generates the healing power of empathy. Compassionate listening spaces “strengthen our connections to others and ourselves, and ultimately make society better.”
This Veterans Day I’m taking part in a “Community Healing Ceremony” through the Moral Injury Program in Philadelphia where I and other civilians will witness the strength of veterans offering testimony about the evil of war in their lives. Hearing your words will clarify my own understanding, vision, and resolve. Listening can be transformative, helping tear down the deceitful myths of war-culture, while building honesty and a willingness to see our world as it is.
Let me finish by thanking you, the veterans of our wars, for your truth-telling. Your contribution is invaluable in this embattled world of ours.