Major scandals involving governmental abuse of veterans, as well as high-profile shootings involving military veterans, have brought the plight of former servicemen to the public eye. We are failing our troops. I don’t think I need to write about the deep debt we owe the volunteers who serve in our Armed Forces. We all realize that we can sleep comfortably at night only because they sacrifice their comfort and safety in the organizations devoted to protecting us and our Republic. Yet we as a culture are failing them.
I am not merely referring to the catastrophe that goes by the name of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although it is indeed troubling (if I may make an understatement) to consider that the government bureaucracy supposedly responsible for helping veterans employs armed robbers, sex offenders, and murderers and that huge numbers of vets have died because of bureaucratic backlog. I fear that the blame cannot solely be placed on the government bureaucratic beast.
An alarming number of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other psychological troubles. Undoubtedly, part of the problem may be biological or personality-based. However, other militaries have far lower percentages of PTSD among their members. What accounts for such a high level of trauma? In his book Tribe (read reviews here and here), Sebastian Junger suggests that a large part of the psychological trauma returning veterans face stems from a sense of alienation and rootlessness. “Studies from around the world show that recovery from war — from any trauma — is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy. Modern society does not seem to be among them.” If we are to help our soldiers, we must make a place in society for them.
From the days of Edmund Burke, a key focus of traditional conservatism has been an emphasis on the fact that society consists not merely of state and individuals but also of families and communities, the “little platoons” that link citizens to country and humanity. Modern liberalism, libertarianism, and even some strands of conservatism have neglected the importance of community. “This above all else, to thine own self be true,” said Shakespeare, and, indeed, self-actualization is valuable. But we cannot let the modern ethos of radical individualism overshadow our responsibilities to the communities in which we live. And new emphasis on community is important not only for our veterans; so many more of our societal problems, including high crime and incarceration rates, racial strife, and burgeoning suicide rates, can be alleviated by strengthening our communities. If we truly want an American renaissance, we must focus on reinforcing Burke’s “little platoons.”