In the words of historian Gerald Linderman, “Every war begins as one war and becomes two, that watched by civilians and that fought by soldiers […] conceptions initially embraced by society at large—national war aims, attitudes toward the enemy, views regarding the character of the fighting—retain vitality for civilians long after the experience of the soldier has rendered them remote or even false. The divergence of outlooks leads inevitably to tension.”
While Linderman’s observation suggests that such division is a timeless aspect of warfare, the separation between civilians and military personnel is especially acute today, with less than 1% of citizens serving in the U.S. military. This massive gulf hurts everyone. Insulated from military matters, civilians lack the requisite knowledge to oversee military operations and ensure the wars that we ask our men and women in uniform to wage are worth the loss in blood and treasure. Meanwhile, military service members who are isolated from their fellow citizens often lack the resources and support to process their military service and reintegrate into the civilian sector. The long-term effects of this segregation are severe: communication breaks down, division becomes normalized, and citizens’ civic capacity is diminished.
The VEP offers an alternative to our current predicament. The project, which takes its name from the importance of trying to imagine other perspectives and experiences, seeks to bridge the gulf between civilian and military communities. It invites veterans to share their stories, in part because veterans benefit from explaining, in their own words, the significance of their military service, but also because we believe these stories help civilians develop empathy, a personal and social act essential to democracy.
The Empathy Project’s interviews of veterans pursue four broad areas of military experience:
1. Enlistment: Motivations for joining the military, including family and community tradition and response to September 11, 2001 attacks; questions about patriotism and the nation’s place in the world.
2. Military culture: Basic training or boot camp; the function and experience of military authority and regimentation; categories of race, economic class, gender, and ethnicity; meritocracy.
3. Battle experience (if applicable): Deployment; destructive power of weaponry; communications and optical technology in combat; fighting and killing; attitude towards enemy soldiers and unarmed civilians’ empathy; attachment among fellow soldiers and marines; death and injury of comrades; interviewee’s condition, including physical wounds, traumatic brain injury, and post traumatic stress disorder.
4. Discharge and re-integration into civilian life: Quality of medical and psychological care; continuing contact with fellow soldiers and marines; divide between self and those who didn’t serve; relations with spouse or partner, family, and friends; employment; post-traumatic stress disorder; alcohol and drug abuse; inability to sleep, socialize, or manage anger; opinions of the wars, the United States, and its enemies; plans for the future.