November 13, 2015
A critical divide between the American public and military needs to be overcome to best provide for veterans returning home from war, said a VA official and authors at the Atlantic Council on Nov. 12.

“Ignorance flourishes amid apathy, and we are a nation that is entirely ignorant of what we are asking people who are fighting wars that are fought in your name whether you like it or not,” said Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield. “The elites of this country have done precious little to narrow that gap between those who serve and everybody else.” 

“After the War: Veterans and Post-Conflict Issues of the Future,” was hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and moderated by August Cole, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) stands as one of the most heavily scrutinized federal offices. Nearly one million veterans have returned injured from Iraq and Afghanistan, two of America’s longest-lasting wars, with many needing frequent medical attention for physical injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The scandal-ridden VA has been criticized by many for not fulfilling its purpose in caring for the nation’s veterans – a failure which VA Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning Linda Spoonster Schwartz blames on Congress.

“The VA is a reflection of the Congress,” Schwartz said. “The Congress is the one that actually designs and decides what we can fund and what we can do, and another part of that is they tell us what we're going to do, too.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki faced tough questions in front of a Senate panel last year after allegations emerged that VA health clinics had attempted to cover up delays in treatment for veterans. The VA has been marred in controversy since its inception in 1930.

“That’s not good enough, and [the public] need to be the ones to say what [they] think is good enough,” said Schwartz of the VA’s record. “We want it better for them than we had, but at the same time, the VA and large institution must learn to change and keep pace with what is going on outside.”

But a large part of the blame can also be pinned on a growing disconnect between the public and the realities of war.

“I think that young people who are growing up today have a radically different idea of what war is in their imagination — the narrative of war, or even the components of war,” said Maxwell Neely-Cohen, author of Echo of the Boom.

That’s why stories of conflict and the soldiers who fight them are so important — to keep the public up to speed about the people who are fighting in their names, added Lemmon.

“Our stories must have a place for the people who fight our wars, whatever they look like or whoever they may be, whether it's conventional or special operations,” Lemmon said. “We’re not passive observers to the narrative that is out there, you can shape it, and I think more people than ever can shape it given what technology is allowing … we have to make a place for the very real people who are fighting our very real wars in our stories.”

Elliot Ackerman, author of Green on Blue, noted a trend in which modern conflict, often occurring halfway across the world, is becoming increasingly dehumanized — especially concerning public perception of war.

“To me, the biggest concern isn't that a drone operator doesn't feel it, it's that we as a country don't feel it when every single day we're taking the fight out there killing people overseas, and it's all done in our names,” Ackerman said.

It’s also a consequence of the military’s current structure, Ackerman said, specifically “the all-volunteer force, the fact that such huge segments of our population walk around every day paying tax dollars that are continuing wars that they really aren't engaged with.”

US forces are still fighting in active combat in Afghanistan, and thousands are deployed around the world in peacekeeping, special operations or support missions. Yet the American public rarely hears about them anymore, said Ackerman and Lemmon.

“These wars have been structured in such a way so that nobody has to feel them,” Ackerman added.

If public consciousness were more in tune with military activity, the panel agreed, care for veterans would benefit out of a broader awareness of the brutality of war and the valor of those who fight in it. According to Lemmon, recent war movies demonstrate that the public is capable of understanding the realities of war and starting conversations about conflict.

“If only Americans cared as much about war as they loved their war movies, we would be in a great position,” Lemmon said. “If people would spend two hours actually thinking through what it is that is being done in their names, I think we would be in a very different place.”

The best way for the public to avoid apathy over war is to stay informed about military deployments, urged Ackerman, who served multiple tours in the Middle East and Southwest Asia as both an infantry and special operations officer.

“Seriously, if you're asking people to do this in your name, just be informed. That's the only thing that I would ask as a veteran — read your newspaper,” Ackerman said.

Broader public knowledge and awareness can lead to conversation which can improve the lives of soldiers and veterans, and ultimately lead to a safer world altogether, Schwartz noted.

“War is serious business, and it’s dangerous,” Schwartz said. “And when you think about it, you have to think about the people that are going to war.”

Alejandro Alvarez is an intern at the Atlantic Council.

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