The soldier is a potent—albeit multivalent and potentially discordant—signifier in US war culture.
Typically, the soldier signifies courage and sacrifice, personifies heroism and patriotism, and conveys exceptional moral authority. The state equates loyalty to the soldier with support for war, a semiotic merger in which questioning any war implies disrespecting every soldier—past, present, and future.
The warrior myth is deeply embedded in the culture. It is ancient, archaic, enduring. It separates the warrior from normal, civilian life. It dehumanizes soldiers, yes, by transforming them into fearless beasts crazed with rage, but also by representing them as super beings, protector gods, and mythic saviors performing heroic deeds.
Yet, the sign of the soldier does not belong exclusively to the state nor mean necessarily that war is righteous and obligatory. The soldier-signifier occasionally cuts against the grain of militarism, as in the case of antiwar veterans. When it does, it meets with cultural, political, and social resistance. The dissonant voice of the antiwar veteran is ignored, deflected, or otherwise discounted by the public as well as political elites.
Sometimes the dissonance is defused by medicalizing it. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex condition suffered by large numbers of soldiers, some of whom, like their ancient Greek predecessors, are afflicted with “a thousand yard stare long after they [have] returned home” (Goodwin 2014). PTSD leaves combat veterans disoriented, distressed, depressed, and suicidal. War has changed them, not for the better. They need treatment to recover from their sickness and its social stigma, but they are treated as individuals, unacknowledged as a sign of the collective disorder of militarism. Any doubts about the war system raised by their disorientation are tainted by the patient’s psychological disorder, by the language of mental disease.
However it is done, preventing the sign of the soldier from testifying against the war system requires a rhetorical effort, consciously or otherwise. It is a defensive maneuver that is suggestive of what is at stake if the veteran’s doubts and dissenting voice should ever find purchase. There may be no more direct route to our suppressed anxiety over continuous warfare than listening to what antiwar veterans have to say.
Listening to antiwar veterans is risky business. Their experience in the war zone disconfirms our conceits and opens us to the frightful question of what comes next, after wars of empire. Militarism is all we know, our only image of prosperity and security, our sole vision of redemption.