Want to understand the veterans? Start with these books and movies.


“I have never seen a single story book that tells how everyone feels.” Bob Dylan said in 1963. On this Veterans Day, we are not involved in a major war for the first time in almost 20 years. We should give thanks. But we also need to ensure that we internalize what the veterans who live and work among us have experienced and continue to experience.

It’s unfortunate that we haven’t done what Iraq War veteran Phil Klay urged us to do seven years ago – use our experiences of suffering to feel what the military went through. We have all suffered in our own lives. Our trauma pools may not be as deep or as wide as those of veterans who endured the pain of soldiers and civilians injured or killed in war. But, as Klay points out, we can imagine and extrapolate from our own suffering to get a feel for what the veterans went through. If we take into account what veterans say and how they say it, we can develop empathy through our common humanity. To deny that we can understand what they went through is to selfishly isolate ourselves from their suffering.

Selfishness is a motive, however unconscious, for our fully voluntary armed forces. Retired U.S. Army career officers Andrew Bacevich and Dennis Laich have separately argued that our all-volunteer military makes citizens less likely to oppose the kinds of long, unsuccessful wars we continue to wage. Our loved ones are safe. We “have no skin in the game”. Yet no less an authority than Henry Kissinger reminds us that “we have been involved in five wars since World War II, which we have in fact lost”, and at great human cost.

Our wish for Veterans Day is that many Americans, along with their friends and families, read, watch, and listen to poems, books, and movies about veterans and listen to their stories. Really feel what you are absorbing and speak honestly about your feelings. Imagine that the soldiers who speak to you on paper and on film are there in the room with you. But relax. They are not.

Most young Americans today have no memory of waging a war. With luck, they never will. But neither did they explore the ironic truths and honest questions of combat poems written by those who have experienced war trauma firsthand. Writings such as: Walt Whitman, “I Saw the Vision of Armies”; Ernest Hemingway, “To the Good Deaths”; Rolando Hinojosa, “Korean Love Songs”; Yusef Komunyakaa, “Cope”; WD Ehrhart, “Thank you for your service”; Brian Turner, “Here, Bullet.” They don’t read books like “Catch-22” (1961), “Bloods” in high school. (1984), or “My war, my art” (2019). They don’t watch documentaries you’re there like “Tattooed under fire” (2008) or “Where do the soldiers come from” (2011).

Start with the poems. Their messages come from the hearts and souls of veterans. Like photographs, poems reveal and conceal truths. To ask questions. Why are Hemingway and Ehrhart so angry at wars fought 50 years apart? Why is Hinojosa so down to earth? What does Komunyakaa really see in the Vietnam Memorial Wall? How would I feel? What do I know about the veterans I thank for their service? Don’t expect easy answers.

The opening stanza of Bruce Springsteen’s brutally honest song “Born in the USA” about our national neglect and abuse of Vietnam veterans proclaims: “You end up like a dog that’s been beaten too much / until you spent half of your life covering up. Now listen carefully to the rest of the lyrics and other songs about the experiences of soldiers such as “Brothers Under the Bridge” (1995) and “Devils and Dust” (2005). The boss uses his imagination. His songs invite us on the path that Phil Klay wants us to take. We can stop being emotional ostriches when it comes to the lives of veterans and the wars they fought.

Feeling is crucial on Veterans Day. For veterans, every day they live is Veterans Day.

Tom Palaima is the Robert M. Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics and Al Martinich is the Roy Allison Vaughan Centennial Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.

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