**UPDATE 6/4/15: I spoke with the managing editor at CT and they are (tentatively) committing to a 5 or 6 month blog series dedicated to the particularities of christian soldiering. I will be curating it through the auspices of Centurions Guild and it will feature a number of writers, from vets themselves to family members and experts in various fields. It is supposed to run through Veterans Day, and I should hear back within about a week about whether and to what extent the organization as a whole is signing off on the idea after the editor takes what we talked about to the rest of the editorial team. So that’s good news. Get on our email list to get the news as it develops – eepurl.com/iQ_b
I wanted to write a short description of my hesitancy in sharing certain aspects of the June Christianity Today cover. I know it has probably been confusing for you to reach out to me and want to get excited, only to have me respond rather awkwardly and standoffish. This series of thoughts is for you. I’m happy to talk with you personally, I just needed somewhere to point friends to when they see the cover but haven’t anticipated my mixed feelings about it. Here we go…
The article is actually about a psychiatrist at Duke and the VA in Durham, Warren Kinghorn. I can’t tell you why CT decided to put an image of me on the cover, because they didn’t tell me (and, to be fair, I didn’t ask). I suspect they wanted to feature a veteran, given their subject being an expert on PTSD. But this is part of the problem, that we can look at “a” something and derive from it certain conclusions (assumptions really). The process of drawing these assumptions is stereotyping. Not all stereotypes are bad, but some are. Stereotypes are created and reinforced by a certain genre of stories, called tropes. Individual stereotypes and the tropes that carry them are shorthand, quick reference guides so conversation partners can skip over them and get to the important stuff they want to talk about. A stereotype is a referential object, and a trope is the narrative within which stereotypes fit.
I have seen “veteran” be used as a stereotype, a way as to discredit, dismiss, and denigrate human beings who fit that category (rarely on purpose). “Veteran” can be pejorative, but it can also be a word we use to venerate people, which makes it a very unique trope because it can act in either way. Other tropes and stereotypes usually will only vilify or venerate, but rarely do both. There are three basic forms the veteran trope takes and the emotive response they expect from hearers;
- Victor – pride. We should be proud of these people. They are heroes.
- Villain – fear. We should be afraid. They have been trained to kill and are volatile.
- Victim – pity. We should feel sorry for the poor things. They are war torn.
Tropes are not what people want to talk about, they’re just time savers, reference points, and this is a problem if we want to truly honor and dignify veterans. Doing so means they cannot be merely referential objects but must be the conversation partners with whom we are engaging. Veterans are the subject matter experts at war and foreign policy if those things can mean anything like the actual experience of those things in reality (as opposed to simply the imagination of the policy/decision makers). Conversation has to happen quickly in our social media saturated culture, and so we rely on shorthand to get to the fun/cool/relevant part of the conversation. But to understand war and the military, we have to slow down and listen. It must be a two-way conversation in which society hears veterans and they hear society. For actual conversation to occur, veterans must not be reduced to mere referential objects. Veterans must cease being primarily “veteran” and start being, in my case, Logan Martin Isaac. This brings me back to CT.
I learned I was going to be photographed when the design director emailed me to say they were hoping I would be able and willing to portray the “darkness” of “the disorder” and suggested I wear military attire. It was clear there was a trope in play, and they had a predetermined story that they needed a face for. It didn’t seem to occur to them that I don’t have any reason to be depressed or that I don’t wear military attire any more. I replied that I was not willing to predetermine my mood and that PTSD was not the central feature of being a veteran, that it is more complicated than that. I expressed consent to portray the kind of story that I trusted Kinghorn was advocating for and that the author seemed to be attuned to, but not a distorted story about people I cared about (including myself). “War Torn” effectively flattened who I am (and who I could be) in the mind of however many thousands of people will see that cover. And there’s no taking back the print edition, though editors agreed to revise the digital version significantly.
Tropes are dangerous precisely because they appear completely banal to the casual observer. But for the person to whom a trope refers, the trope or stereotype is unrecognizable. Few African American men will look at a depiction of an Angry Black Man stereotype and see themselves, though many white Americans will not immediately see any issue. In the same way, there will be men who see an iteration of Hysterical Woman and never bat an eye. Likewise with veterans as victor, villain, or victim. The trope only seems to fit because it has been made to fit, not because it actually fits. Tropes regurgitate dominant narratives in order to talk about something other than the subject of the trope. Remember, these are shorthand, not long form narrative.
I wasn’t given the chance to see the cover or title until after it had gone to print, and when I do see it, I’m not sure who I’m looking at. I remember the shoot well, and had a good time. The photographer’s assistant was an architecture major and we talked about cathedrals and stained glass. We had coffee and laughed together. When I saw that picture, alongside the chosen title, I knew that my objections were either ignored or misunderstood. When I read the title, my impression was that it was a step backward.
When you saw the cover, maybe you didn’t think anything in particular. But that is precisely the problem, the banality of the image masks a dangerously simplifying trope that is hard to recognize unless the trope is about you. All of the veterans that appeared in a picture with Warren in the print edition demanded their names be removed and withdrew their permission to use their likeness. Meanwhile, I had become the poster boy for a misleading and destructive narrative about veterans either being pitiful or fear-inducing.
Let me be clear though, CT has a lot on their plate every month. I understand that mistakes are made and I can’t expect institutions to intuit what is healthy for veterans precisely because of what I’ve articulated above about tropes. They had a story already prepared (which was also prepared for them in turn, by Hollywood or some other force I won’t get into here), and they needed someone to be the face. That’s how magazines are sold; headlines and images need to be eye catching, maybe a bit controversial. I did not share this reflection widely because Warren and I are still in talks with CT about how to do damage control without demonizing them or doing more harm than good as they try to move forward. I have some very strong feelings about how things shook out, both for veterans generally but also for me personally, but I am committed to making this a positive experience. I appreciate your prayers for patience especially and also that CT will partner with Warren and me to keep these conversations alive in a way that is constructive and builds on what we have already accomplished.
…This was lengthier than I anticipated, but I hope it has been illuminating. I am grateful for the focus on veterans, but I want to be very careful we do not forfeit intellectual attention in favor of the voyeur’s gaze. A voyeur looks, gets their kicks, and carries on. An ally sees, listens, considers, and alters their perspective. As a veteran, I don’t want your pity, your fear, or your pride. I want you to see me as fully human, fully capable of both evil and grace, just as you are. The particularities of my trauma might be different from yours, but we all have trauma and we all have pain. That should not determine us, especially if we are Christians. I hope you will read the article for what it offers and think with me what it means to be Church after war (here is a link to read it without the pay wall, I hope). We are all touched by war and we all have skin in the game, so to speak. Let’s keep thinking about how that makes us more like one another rather than less.
If you want to help this conversation move forward, let me suggest connecting with Centurions Guild. I focus a lot of my energy there and I am looking forward to kicking it up a notch once I get back to the states. We’ve been around for seven years now, doing everything by volunteer labor (mostly mine, but there’ve been a few others too). Consider signing up for our email updates, where you will be the first to know of new resources for thinking about the story of Christian soldiers as it has unfolded through Church history, liturgy, and theology. We are hoping to incorporate and seek tax-exempt status this year, and could use every ounce of support along the way. Get in touch with me if there is any way you can help, there’s a lot of good work to do, and the more hands to help, the merrier! Thanks for reading all this. I look forward to being in conversation with you.