February 28, 2012
Name: Jacob Worrell
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Nashua, NH
Milblog: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (IAVA)
In the Breach of the Civilian-Military Divide with Whitney Houston
Have you heard the news that Whitney Houston died? Of course you have. In the age of mass social media, it’s impossible to avoid certain news stories, no matter how banal. Like many of you, the Internet broke the news to me via Facebook through my friend’s status updates. Though I was not surprised by the number of people who felt the need to comment on her death, I was surprised by the qualitative differences between posts made by friends with deep roots in military culture and friends without such roots.
The majority of my Facebook friends reacted to the recent death of Whitney Houston by posting status updates lamenting her tragic passing. Many others, reflecting upon her struggle with substance abuse, used the occasion to raise social awareness about the issue. And then there were others who -- and something tells me this phenomenon extended beyond my personal Facebook network -- could not resist posting variations of “And I will always love you!”
And then there were my fellow veterans.
It seemed that, upon hearing the news of Whitney’s death, many veterans immediately went into defensive mode. The common refrain went something like this: “How can so many people appear to care so much about the death of a rich pop singer, but care so little about the thousands of soldiers who have died serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan?” They angrily anticipated excessive media coverage of the singer’s death and bemoaned the excessive outpouring of public sympathy. As for the former grievance, it’s hard to blame them -- the media will no doubt beat this drum to death and the entertainment industry will exploit the nostalgia created by her passing, milking every penny out of tragedy. Meanwhile, the events in Afghanistan will go largely unnoticed by the public at large -- business as usual. It’s been that way for over a decade, why should things change now?
As for the claim that public sympathy is “excessive,” like so many issues, one’s attitude will largely depend upon which side of the civilian-military divide one is on. The death of a pop singer like Whitney is a cultural event that captivates our collective consciousness. Her song hits are universally known. Anyone over the age of 25 can at least vaguely remember the days in which “I Will Always Love You” arrested the airwaves, and held them hostage so long that people caught themselves singing the chorus in their sleep. In her heyday, she was as big a star as stars get. And whether we sought the knowledge or not, the media made sure that we knew all about her personal struggles.
Due to the collective experience of living through the Whitney phenomenon, I tend to think that expressions of sympathy concerning her death are not excessive, even if the sheer volume of information we know about her is. At the end of the day, the passing of a megastar is an event that brings us together -- even if it’s in small, and perhaps insignificant, ways. And we know how to honor her memory: post your favorite Whitney video from YouTube on your Facebook wall, hit the “like” button for your friend’s heartfelt one-liner about talent and tragedy, text your friend and say, “Hey, did you hear the news, Whitney Houston died!”
Therein, I think, lies the real problem: our society knows exactly how to respond to celebrity deaths, but has no idea how to deal with the deaths of thousands of service members. And the reason for the dichotomy is tragically simple -- with less than 1% of the population serving, people in our society relate more directly to celebrities than our military. Many veterans are acutely aware of this prevailing paradigm, and it is fast becoming a driving force behind feelings of isolation and separateness from the larger population.
I also suspect that veterans, more than any other group, are able to identify entertainment masquerading as grief. If we’re being honest with ourselves, the death of Whitney Houston does not resemble a personal tragedy for most people -- not even close. We didn’t really know her. Beyond our initial human sympathy there is interest in the story. If you went to CNN.com on Sunday night, you saw the headline “The World Awaits Answers.” We don’t have a personal vested interest, but we just have to know the answers. We’re on the edge of our seat awaiting the next update. For the sake of knowledge? No, for the sake of entertainment. But we disguise our voyeurism in a veneer of grief.
I think it is the veneer itself that many combat vets find intolerable; veterans are revolted by the idea that Americans can motivate themselves to engage in fake expressions of mourning, but appear unmoved by the deaths of the service members who died on their behalf. After a decade of war, you’d be hard pressed to find a combat veteran who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan who has not had to deal with loss. Hence the reactions many people have to celebrity deaths is offensive, both because they caricaturize the real grief that many veterans feel, and because the American people feel so detached from their military that they can’t muster up genuine grief for its fallen heroes.
I recognize that grief is not something one conjures due to a moral imperative. It is a human emotion, a response to losing something or someone of immense emotional value. Since the average person is so detached from our service members, I don’t begrudge them their inability to share our grief. But neither can I begrudge some of my fellow combat vets who, through no fault of their own, are strangers in their own land and are angry because of it. After all, it ought not be this way.
During his commencement speech for West Point’s Class of 2011, Admiral Mike Mullen spoke about the civilian-military divide as one of the most pressing issues of our time saying: “Our work is appreciated. Of that, I am certain. There isn’t a town or a city I visit where people do not convey to me their great pride in what we do. Even those who do not support the wars support the troops. But I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle. This is important, because a people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them.”
With all due respect to Admiral Mullen, I am beginning to wonder whether being simply informed is good enough. As our post-9/11 wars wind down, thousands of veterans are returning to our communities. Many of these veterans spent ten years of their adult life either deployed in a warzone or preparing to deploy to one. They now face daunting challenges that include record veteran unemployment, post-traumatic stress, and a suicide epidemic that plagues both those still in uniform and those recently out of it.
Permeating all of these issues is the aforementioned civilian-military divide. The American people badly need to reestablish an emotional connection with their combat veterans before they can understand a fraction of what they are asking them to do on their behalf. When more Americans know their military again, sharing in their grief will not only come naturally, but the natural tendency to avoid grief might even lead to better policy decisions.
Jacob Worrell is a veteran of the Iraq War, having served in OIF with the 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska between 2005 and 2006. After separating from the Army in 2007, using benefits from the Post 9/11 GI Bill, he enrolled in college, eventually graduating from Amherst College in 2011 with B.A. in Economics and Philosophy. He currently works as a Special Projects Coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).