This is an oral history of combat veterans’ experience in the post-September 11th wars. It is named the Veterans Empathy Project because it seeks to help bridge the huge gap of understanding in the United States today between civilians who never served in the military and the 100,000s of veterans who fought and killed and risked life and limb for their country.
Every war begins as one war and becomes two, that watched by civilians and that fought by soldiers. The degree of separation in the United States may be unusually high today, though, after over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan fought by an all-volunteer force. The U.S. military’s highest ranking officer said as much in May, 2011, when he warned the Army’s newest class of leaders that the armed forces risk being misunderstood by a civilian population that is isolated from military service and cannot grasp the rigors and horrors of combat. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of the West Point graduating class of 2011 that it was their obligation not only to lead Army units but also to help narrow a widening divide between the American public and its military. “I fear that they do not know us,” Mullen warned. “I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle,” he continued: “a people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them.”
The Veterans Empathy Project provides a medium and content for understanding the realities of war. Ideally, it will be a living history that makes clearer the motivations, experience, rewards, and costs of military service in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. It’s intended to support scholarly research and pedagogy in a variety of disciplines, from history and sociology to literary studies, military studies, and psychology. It also reaches past academic pursuits and fills a civic role in raising public consciousness and sparking discussion about veterans’ physical wounds, post-traumatic stress, and other personal and social costs of war.
The Empathy Project’s interviews of combat veterans pursue four broad areas of military experience:
- 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.
- 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.
- Battle experience: 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.
- 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.
Veterans Empathy Project Contributors
Elizabeth Erwin is a librarian from Summerville, South Carolina, who is currently working towards her PhD in Cultural Studies in the Department of History at Lehigh University. Her research interests include Digital History, American Television Serials, and the Rhetoric of Social Movements. Elizabeth is currently a television critic for numerous outlets, including Entertainment Weekly and TwoCentsTV, and is interested in exploring the depiction of women and gender in popular culture narratives. She has presented her research at various fan and academic conferences and has facilitated multi-day oral history and digital film production workshops for adults and children.
Christopher Brockman is a graduate student in the Department of History at Lehigh University focused on 20th century American History. Professionally, he currently serves as the Media and Technology Integrator of Pennridge School District in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. Interested in the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Digital History, his current research focuses on the importance of the Fireside Chats within the scope of the New Deal and the use of digital scholarship within the field of American History.