Virtues Of War – Narrative Identities & Civic Health

Today our focus is on Hilde Lindemann’s introductory chapter from Damaged Identities: Narrative Repair as well as several articles pertaining to the perception of veterans and the current epidemic of suicide. We will return to MacIntyre soon, but Lindemann helps us flesh out some real-world applications for his overall project.

Identity

A feminist scholar accepting and even advancing his recovery of virtue and emphasis on narrative, Lindemann gives us some terms that may be helpful for understanding the unique social location of veterans. Before we cover those, it’s important to remember some of MacIntyre’s terms as well;

  • Emotivism – A state in which “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” (12)
  • Characters – ‘Moral representatives of their culture… because of the way ideas & theories assume an embodied existence’ (28)
  • Narrative/s – ‘Historical memory of the societies in which they were finally written down…a moral background to contemporary debate’ (121)

polsci-497_2-004Lindemann, on the other hand, has more in mind when she uses the word narrative. She does, however, agree for the most part with MacIntyre, describing narratives as “a moral track record” which can commit individuals and communities to certain moral values. But narrative is bigger and broader than the definition I’ve given of MacIntyre’s. While she does give us some defining features of stories on pages 11-15 to which we may return later, she does not give a full typography of narrative. Perhaps she has inherited MacIntryre’s early Marxist influence, or maybe she is a social conflict theorist, but she classifies narrative into two conflicting genres. The narrative genre employed by systems of power she calls Master Narratives.

polsci-497_2-005Master Narratives are stories “that serve as summaries of shared social understandings… Repositories of common norms [used to] make sense of our experience… and to justify what we do.”(p.6) Although seemingly benign, this definition masks a clear power differential prone to creating “morally degrading identities” even if master narratives are not inherently oppressive.(‘Degrading’, p.xii. ‘Oppressive’, p.7) There are two negative effects attached to persons subjected to morally degrading master narratives; Deprivation of Opportunity and Infiltrated Consciousness.

polsci-497_2-006Deprivation of Opportunity describes the state in which a person’s moral agency and worth is diminished because others treat that person as morally incompetent. (pp.22-28)

Infiltrated Consciousness describes the state in which a person’s moral agency and worth is diminished because they treat themselves as morally incompetent.(pp.28-34)

To address the morally injurious effects of degrading master narratives, Lindemann proposes marginalized populations engage in crafting and disseminating Counterstories; clusters “of histories, anecdotes, and other narrative fragments” which can “repair the damage inflicted on identities by abusive power systems” by revising “understanding of a person or a social group…through augmentation and correction” of master narratives.(pp.xii & 8) Thus, counterstories are strategic narrative repair, they force the re-imagination of morally degrading or oppressive master narratives by populations asserting new, more uplifting (and often factually accurate) stories about their own identities. Keep these terms as frames of reference as we continue to think about the perception of veterans and the conflicting roles they often play for various political communities in America.

Perceptions

Before we introduced ourselves last week, I asked for responses to statements and images used for a Trait Imagery Exercise used in “Strengthening Perceptions of America’s Post-9/11 Veterans” a report commissioned by Got Your 6, a nonprofit coalition uniting Hollywood and government partners to serve veterans. As statistically illiterate as I am, I did not execute the test as fairly as I could. I was supposed to ask you to agree or disagree with three statements in reference to three different pictures;

  1. Is a military veteran
  2. Has a mental health issue
  3. Has experienced homelessness
polsci-497_2-012

Numbers are percentages of “true” responses to statements on the left

I did not give the exercise as simply or objectively as did their researchers, but the basic findings nonetheless line up between their own application and the one we did in class. Of all the images shown, the person thought most likely to have a mental health issue and to have experienced homelessness was also the person respondents most frequently thought was a military veteran. In our own class, those associations mostly line up, with every single respondent seeing the panhandler as being a military veteran, having a mental health issue, and having experienced homelessness. The greatest discrepancy between our class and the GQR data was in our higher likelihood of thinking all three men had a mental health issue.

The rest of that report paints a picture of the overwhelmingly “generic and literal” perception many Americans have of military veterans. Got Your 6 commissioned it as part of their Cultural Change program, which recognizes the profound effect cultural narratives play in the construction and revision of personal identities. You can see how their programs break down here. The report found that veterans are seen in polarizing tones, of being either heroes or ‘charity cases’. Heroic perceptions were largely ignored in the report, perhaps a result of the negative stigma disclosed in the findings of the Trait Imagery Exercise just discussed.

The framework of Charity, despite whatever support it might publicly muster, “does damage by lending power to… misbeliefs.”(p.13) It can, and will, be argued that false assumptions are particularly destructive when held by what Got Your 6 calls ‘content creators,’ especially those who produce movies and television, what MacIntyre calls Dramatic Narratives.(After Virtue, p.250) In fact, test subjects participating in the research “self-report that the entertainment industry has an outsized impact on the way they think of veterans.”(p.2) It should strike us as particularly problematic that “Polar extremes of ‘damaged’ or ‘hero’ represent what respondents… report as the standard depiction of veterans on television and film.”(p.2, emphasis added)

Civic Health

The 2015 “Veterans Civic Health Index” paints a somewhat different picture of military veterans, and was also supported by Got Your Six. By “Civic Health,” the index means “the degree to which people trust each other, help their neighbors, and interact with their government.”(p.4) While homelessness and mental health issues are not a primary focus, these two social concerns are addressed briefly. The Index cites data suggesting that, contrary to narratives about veterans(p.7);

  • Veterans comprise 8.6% of the homeless population
  • Between 11-20% of veterans experience (posttraumatic stress)

It should be noted, as we’ll discuss shortly, that veterans only make up 7.3 percent of the American populace, so 8.6% suggests that veterans are in fact slightly over represented in the homeless population. Furthermore, many clinicians have reservations about the 11-20% number, which does not account for the significant number of veterans not receiving care from the VA.  Many mental health professionals also claim that, due to social stigmas, many veterans do not seek care even if they are enrolled in VA medical services or are not properly diagnosed in a highly politicized bureaucracy, sometimes being under-diagnosed due to bias against ‘malingerers,’ etc.

As a whole, the Index argues that the idea that veterans “are significantly more likely than non veterans to experience unemployment, incarceration, homelessness, and various other issues… are largely misconceptions.”(p.4) Additional data the Index cites to refute negative perceptions include;

  • The average adjusted non-veteran unemployment rate is 13% higher than the veteran rate (p.7)
  • Veterans have consistently earned significantly more than non-veterans (p.7)
  • Over the last century, veterans from all generations have outpaced the general population in their habits of service and civic engagement (p.10)
  • Young veterans have the highest rate of volunteering among all Americans (p.10)
  • The military promotes responsible family relationships and membership in the wider community (p.16)

screenshot-2017-01-18-10-35-42Civic engagement like voting, volunteer service, and participating in one’s local community, are important because “strong civic health positively affects local GDP, economic resilience, upward income mobility, public health, and student achievement.”(p.4) If that is true, then there are other facts about veteran health we cannot ignore, namely the startlingly high rate of suicide within military communities.

Suicide

A 2007 CBS investigative report was the first to look critically at the rate of suicide among veterans. Using two-year-old data acquired from 45 states through their departments of vital statistics, CBS found that approximately 17 veterans took their own loves every day. After a series of scandals, and denying the data wholesale for several years, the Department of Veterans Affairs conducted their own studies, the most recent and comprehensive of which was released in 2016. Despite the alarm caused by CBS’s investigation, the VA claims in their report that “prior to 2006, Veteran suicide rates were lower than adult civilian suicide rates.”(p.24) VA data comes from fewer states but is more reliable, originating from federal records and acting with political authority CBS couldn’t muster. You have been asked to read this report, much of which is comprised of graphics…

That being said, the suicide report is a statistician’s wet dream; sorting data sets between sex and age groups, and even outlining how methods break down between veterans and non-veterans. By stratifying data by age group, sex, etc., it makes it hard to draw general conclusions, which might be good, as this forces us to confront biases and talking points used by both sides of the political aisle. As it turns out, we cannot say “veteran” and assume the word has one monolithic meaning. After all, WWII veterans are very different from Vietnam vets, and there is even some animosity between these groups, based no less on stereotypes and falsities than those leaned on by non-veterans. As one veteran has put it, “If you’ve met one veteran… you’ve met one veteran.”

The suicide report prevents us from saying one simple, straightforward thing about veterans and what it is that’s fueling suicides within the military community as a whole (actively serving soldiers also have disproportionately high rates for suicide). Rather we can draw a few very basic conclusions from the data. One thing that stands out, to me, is that just under 40% of all veterans are enrolled in VA care (p.3; only 8.5 out of 21.6 million). That may be because many veterans receive health care through non VA employers, are ineligible (due to “bad paper”), do not want to go to the VA, or other reasons. This is noteworthy because, according to the report, only six of the 20 suicides per day are by veterans enrolled in VA care. That seems to suggest that the getting vets enrolled may bring the suicide rate down, but the relationship may be correlational without being causal…

Here is a run down of the main take aways, listed in the executive summary;

polsci-497_2-017

One thought on “Virtues Of War – Narrative Identities & Civic Health

  1. A friend on Facebook writes: “Logan, I know this is difficult to quantify because it’s complex. The report summary gives statistical incidence for the ‘who’ (male/female/age demographics) and the ‘how’ (“firearms remains high”) This is important and it’s great to see the VA studying it…but what is your experience, even anecdotally, as to the top 3 reasons ‘Why’ of veteran suicide.” Here is my response;

    You’re right, it’s really hard to quantify. The question of “why” is especially difficult, and I am hesitant to even speculate, because trauma is experienced very differently and never in a vacuum. In other words, even combat related trauma is only one factor, likely of many, that drives someone to consider suicide or fall prey to its ideation. However, I do feel strongly that a strong contributing factor in Christian soldier suicide (which likely constitute a majority of the 20 per day figure) is the poor public discourse the Church has about war.

    There are three typical ways soldiers are talked about, air they are talked about (silence is a whole separate issue, and just as destructive), and each inspires one primary emotional response in non-veterans;
    1. the victor – pride
    2. the victim – pity
    3. the villain – panic

    Victors are like John Wayne; they make civilians feel pride, they get awards and need parades (to say nothing of meaningful jobs). Victims are like Ron Kovic of Born on the Fourth of July, they’re ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ and they civilians want to pity them or treat them as charity cases. Villains are like Micah Xavier Johnson; they’ve got weapons training and are emotionally or physically volatile, and inspire panic in civilians.

    The problem with all these is they are partially true at most, and all are morally derogatory. In other words, they create stereotypes that diminish the full dignity of our fellow Americans. When the above options are all you have to choose from, you it can affect your self-perception, exacerbating the constellation of other issues that military personnel are also disproportionately affected by (divorce, substance abuse, etc.).

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