The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


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 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).


Sir, this is a very well written essay, a balanced account of the civilian-military divide. It helps me understand more about our culture of entertainment and the point of view of many of our vets. Thank you for writing and publishing this essay. Thank you for your service to our country which continues in your work with IAVA.

I have no immediate family involved in the military (my deceased dad was a WW2 vet) and I have never been in the military, but it grieves me that there is such a divide between the general population and those serving. I try to do my part, I have read Sandbox since day one, and pray frequently both privately and as a public church topic for the 'forgotten' soldiers in current fields, as well as those who have returned only to be discarded.

At my age, it is easy to say this, but I feel re-instituting a mandaroty two year draft would go a long way towards raising the awareness and activism against these endless war drums, both on the policy level and the active involvement level.

Thanks to all who do and have served, like the POWs, you are not forgotten.

Chris Saulnier, Gray, Maine

Well-said, Mr. Worrell! You've very concisely captured the essence of this divide, which spreads to almost every facet of our society, from politics to movie reviews, to religion. As an old soldier who first joined during the Vietnam War-era, served during the Cold War, and returned to serve during the GWOT, I feel somewhat "schizophrenic", being on both sides of the "divide", depending on what day of the week it is. It'd be great if we can all work together to narrow this gap.

Dave Hall (OIF 09-10)

I think one of the crowning points of Mr. Worrell's essay is he humanizes both sides. He does not demonize anyone. He demonstrates the essence of civil conversation that can lead to greater understanding on both sides. Only in an environment of mutual respect can we move forward to find the best solutions, the win-win solutions to our problems.

4 July 2009 I was in a small base in Eastern Afghanistan that was nearly over-run. The decision was made during the attack to call ALAMO. This brought assets from across the country and I believe saved many lives. The event went unnoticed because the media was mourning the loss of Michael Jackson. Families desperate for information about those in the attack were given just a few words now and again that scrolled across the bottom of the screen. The problem lies in the fact that the media is "entertainment." Covering the passing of a megastar gets better ratings than the death of yet another grunt.

Media is one answer to bridging the divide.

A star's demise is on every TV on multiple stations, over and over and over again.

How is this side of the 'divide' supposed to comprehend the loses in Afghanistan and Iraq when we are not even allowed to view the remains of fallen heroes as they return to the US via Dover?

As a Vietnam veteran (Army nurse) I am very familiar with this divide. When I returned to the United States I had trouble adjusting to the fact that it was 'life as usual' here. And at that time there was tv coverage most evenings. But the typical civilian did not have a clue about what military individuals were going through each day. While I was in Vietnam a nurse from the next hooch was killed in an airplane crash. We had the same last name and I was afraid that my family would think it was me. In reality I do not believe that young woman's death was even mentioned in the media. I don't have an answer for the dilemma but I do want our militalry personnel to know that some of us understand and value your service.
Former Army Nurse

I hear and feel your pain sir. As I perused the Facebook pages of friends, I became somewhat disgusted; millions of people die from drug or alcohol related incidents each year and we are mourning the acts of a pop icon?

I will never understand the fascination with celebrities... you guys are my hero, my worthy superstars!!!

There is one and only one solution to the civilian-military divide. That is compulsory service for all eligible 18 year old young men and completely justifiable conflicts. WWII never saw this type of divide because EVERYONE was affected by the war and just about everyone participated and sacrificed in some way.

The division and the misunderstanding between war veterans and civilians go back as far as WWI. In his marvellous novel "Im Westen nichts Neues" German author Rainer Maria Remarque pointed that out brillantly.
This great difference is only logical. Life in a war zone is that much different from a life in a country within the western civilisation. Living in constant fear of an deadly attack, without the presence of an enemy, the experience of death or severly wounded comrades is no good for most of human brains and souls.
How different is the life in the US, Canada of Europe from that. We dont have much to fear, unless we are black and live in Florida, physical danger is greatly limited.
And people are lazy. They tent to forget events they dont like. And the fact of thousands of dead young men and women because of a war isnt nice. So the public referrs to easy ways: They dont want to hear it, they stick to phrases like "honour" and "patriotism", not knowing what this means in any way.
All of you soldiers have my great respect. You do a great job. My cousin is in Quatar as an airforce sergeant. Hes a great guy, but I as a civilian, who is glad that I have the great gift of living a peaceful life, will never understand his experiences in the military. I hope he comes back sane in physical and mental means.

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