We Are All Victims of War: Veteran Liberation Theology
A deep rift separates the pacifist and veteran communities in this country. To form a movement strong enough to bring an end to war, we will need to bridge this gap. The articulation of a veteran liberation theology has the power to create a space for cathartic exchange between the pacifist and military communities, enabling both groups to perceive how soldiers are exploited and oppressed by the war system. It is in this space that the end of war as envisioned in the Bible by Isaiah and Micah will come about.
The rich tradition of liberation theology has done much to connect the idea of liberation from economic and social oppression to an anticipation of ultimate salvation. In particular, liberation theologians have sought to center the perspectives of the poor and of communities of color, engaging the oppressed in a process of discernment and empowerment that works both within their own hearts and in systems of oppression. There is great potential in taking this approach to veterans and the military community, groups whose desperate oppression is often missed.
The Oppression of Veterans
A misunderstanding of soldiers and their communities is often evident in the pacifist community. Veterans are seen as unstable, violent, over-emotional, perpetrators of violence, militaristic, and conservative. These generally negative views of soldiers and veterans have a historical basis in fact, but that basis is borne from the profound moral and spiritual oppression that military families endure. Veteran communities are founded on models that were intentionally designed by conservative elites to keep vets drunk and submissive. Since the end of World War I, American veterans in particular have seen a century of tragic oppression, culminating in the current gut-wrenching statistics of veteran suicides, divorce, homelessness, joblessness, and incarceration.
The oppression of American veterans began specifically as an ideological enterprise and has been exceptionally successful in its main objectives: to marginalize veterans and to appropriate any political efficacy they might retain after the trauma of war. For example, Wall Street bankers founded the American Legion at the close of World War I because they feared a mass of veterans returning “tainted” by Bolshevism. The two main objectives of the original leaders of the American Legion were to provide subsidized alcohol to veterans (keeping them drunk and uncritical) and to train a core of reserve officers that had not been “exposed” to Bolshevism to fight against a communist revolution on behalf of their wealthy patrons.
After World War II, a protracted struggle within the organization emerged over the famous Montgomery G.I. Bill of Rights: leaders of the American Legion were against educating veterans, but the group’s members overwhelmingly supported it. Ultimately the struggle ended with the group’s endorsement of the G.I. Bill, but it left the membership bitter and divided. Today’s American Legion is more positively focused. On the whole, it is a community like any other. It has concerts, cookouts, and baseball games. Every post has an open bar with extremely cheap alcohol for members. The American Legion has been the model of veteran community-building, despite its foundational purpose of oppression, proving that good can be achieved even in the midst of systems of domination and oppression.
Knappenberger, Evan. We Are All Victims of War: Veteran Liberation Theology Tikkun28(2): 39.