Welcome to this week’s CCLKOW discussion piece. This time, we are looking at the portrayal and perception of military veterans in the UK and other western countries. In short, veterans are frequently characterised as ‘victims,’ in the media and by the public at large. Moreover, there is increasing concern that they will experience long-term mental health problems in the wake of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. However, veterans are a far more heterogeneous and resilient group than reports seem to indicate. Read the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW
In the last few years, media reports have suggested that there are an alarming number of British veterans experiencing service-related psychological problems. Commentators have argued that an increasing pool of ex-servicemen and women are falling through the cracks. As operations in Afghanistan have come to a close, numerous authors have expressed the fear that a record number of veterans will present with mental health problems like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) in the near future.[i] The debate over how best to address their needs and foster a supportive environment for these men and women has become highly politicised. In the process, the veteran has become a hotly contested figure. The popular portrayal of military veterans in the UK and other western countries has only served to further complicate this dialogue.
There is a growing and widespread perception amongst the media and public alike that war is a universally traumatising event and veterans, without exception will be damaged by their experiences. Beginning in 2011, Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft conducted a study to evaluate public opinion of the British Armed Forces. Amongst his chief findings, he reported that, ‘in our poll of the UK public, more than nine out of ten thought it was common for those leaving the Force to have “some kind of physical, emotional or mental problem” as a result of their time in the military; more than a third (34%) thought it was “very common” for this to be the case.’[ii] In a recent article, journalist Max Hastings has also pointed out that, ‘those who have participated in wars are widely perceived not as protagonists…but instead as victims.’[iii] Popular television shows of the past decade frequently depict veterans as broken individuals who can lash out violently at those around them. They are characterised as ‘ticking time bombs,’ who will inevitably experience difficulties in processing their experiences.[iv]
This image is further reinforced when the war in question is unpopular. As historian Helen McCartney has underlined, ‘much of the UK newspaper coverage of the armed forces depicts service personnel as victims, either of failed strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan or of government underspending or MoD incompetence.’[v] In the United States, retired four star General Jim Mattis has also publicly criticized news outlets and politicians for helping, ‘fuel [the] perception that most or all…veterans come back from war traumatized.’[vi] Mattis is but one of many voices within the wider community of American veterans who have expressed concern over public perception.[vii]
On both sides of the Atlantic, the black and white picture that has been presented does not accurately reflect the complexity of the issue at hand and lacks a great deal of nuance. According to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, ‘contrary to many people’s expectations, deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan has not led to an overall increase in mental health problems among UK personnel.’[viii] The authors estimated that only around 1.3% to 4.8% of UK Regulars returning from deployment exhibited symptoms of probable PTSD.[ix] Recent reports also indicate that rates of suicide are lower within the military than in the civilian population.[x] In general, veterans who have deployed on more than one occasion are less likely to suffer from ‘subsequent mental health problems.’[xi] Around 18,000 service personnel are discharged from the British Armed Forces every year. While little research has been done on service leavers in the UK, the American literature suggests that, ‘military service for most people, has a positive effect on…life trajectory.’[xii]
There will be those veterans who experience psychological difficulties as a result of their service and will require help in processing their experiences and adjusting to civilian life. Scholars have identified several groups (e.g. combat veterans, reservists) as at higher risk for mental health problems.[xiii] These veterans and their families deserve to be treated fairly and receive the attention that they require. Be that as it may, the present paradigm of the veteran as victim fails to acknowledge the range of human experience in relation to trauma. Not all veterans are damaged by their experiences of war. Acknowledging this resilience does not trivialize or delegitimize individual suffering. On the contrary, it simply recognizes the complexities of how human beings react to stressful or traumatic events and the difficulties inherent in trying to neatly categorise people into boxes.
Over the next decade, the UK and its allies will undoubtedly continue to face challenges in caring for and adequately addressing the needs of a new generation of veterans. There is evidence to suggest that stigma remains a barrier to those who might wish to seek professional help.[xiv] Furthermore, the military footprint is shrinking in response to cuts in manpower. Consequently, fewer members of the public have ties to those in uniform. There is also a need to continue improving the options available to veterans and their families in connection to services like counseling.[xv] However, this process should not be informed by extreme stereotypes but by a well-rounded and realistic picture of the veteran population. The public should be encouraged to see veterans as they would see themselves, as human beings with challenges to face and reserves of strength upon which to draw. Like civilians, service personnel and veterans struggle with addiction, depression and many other disorders. Equally, they can recover and/or live with those disorders and still have much to offer society. Moreover, they frequently exhibit a remarkable resilience that should be recognized and celebrated.
So the questions for this week are:
Does public perception help or hinder the recovery of veterans who have experienced trauma?
How should the media portray veterans in order to more accurately reflect their experiences?
Is it possible to effectively ‘support the soldier’ without supporting the cause for which they fight?
*’Culture of trauma’ is a phrase that appears to have been coined by Ben Shephard, War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 385.
[i] Sima Kotecha, ‘Care for UK Military Veterans is “Flawed,” Medical Experts Say,’ BBC News, 29 Oct 2014.
[ii] Lord Ashcroft, ‘The Armed Forces & Society: The military in Britain—through the eyes of Service personnel, employers, and the public’ (May 2012), p. 15.
[iii] Max Hastings, ‘Veterans and Mental Health in Contemporary Britain,’ Royal United Services Institute Journal 159, No. 6 (Dec 2014), p. 36.
[iv] Ben Farmer, ‘Army recruitment could be hit by charities portraying troops as victims,’ Telegraph (25 Dec 2013), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10531300/Army-recruitment-could-be-hit-by-charities-portraying-troops-as-victims.html.
[v] Helen McCartney, ‘The military covenant and the civil-military contract in Britain,’ International Affairs 86, No. 2 (2010), p. 424.
[vi] General Jim Mattis, as quoted in, Jim Michaels, ‘Mattis: Veterans are not victims,’ USA Today (5 May 2014), http://www.usatoday.com/story/nation/2014/05/05/mattis-iraq-afghanistan-marines-usmc/8632093/.
[vii] David Morris, ‘Surviving War Doesn’t Turn All Veterans into Victims, Sometimes it Helps Them Grow,’ The Daily Beast (18 May 2014), http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/18/surviving-war-doesn-t-turn-all-veterans-into-victims-sometimes-it-helps-them-grow.html; Dave Philipps, ‘Coming Home to Damaging Stereotypes,’ New York Times (5 Feb 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/us/a-veteran-works-to-break-the-broken-hero-stereotype.html?_r=0
[viii] Deirdre MacManus, N Jones, S Wessely, NT Fear, E Jones, N Greenberg, ‘The mental health of the UK Armed Forces in the 21st century: resilience in the face of adversity,’ J R Army Med Corps 0 (2014), p. 1.
[ix] Ibid., p. 2.
[x] MoD, ‘Suicide and Open Verdict Deaths in the UK Regular Armed Forces 1985-2013,’ 27 March 2014; ‘Myth Busters,’ Combat Stress (2015), http://www.combatstress.org.uk/veterans/myth-busters/#VeteransAndSuicide
[xi] James Gallagher, ‘”Violence Risk” after Military Tours,’ BBC News, 15 March 2013.
[xii] Amy Iverson, Vasilis Nikolaou, Neil Greenberg, Catherine Unwin, Lisa Hull, Mathew Hotopf, Christopher Dandeker, John Ross and Simon Wessely, ‘What happens to British veterans when they leave the armed forces?,’ European Journal of Public Health 15, No. 2 (2005), pp. 175-184.
[xiii] MacManus, N Jones, Wessely, NT Fear, E Jones, Greenberg, ‘The mental health of the UK Armed Forces in the 21st century,’ p. 1.
[xiv] Amy C Iverson, Lauren van Staden, Jamie Hacker Hughes, Neil Greenberg, Matthew Hotopf, Roberto J Rona, Graham Thornicroft, Simon Wessely, and Nicola T Fear, ‘The stigma of mental health problems and other barriers to care in the UK Armed Forces,’ BioMed Central Health Services Research 11 (2011), pp. 1-10.
[xv] MoD, ‘Annual Medical Discharges in the UK Regular Armed Forces 2009/10-2013/14,’ 10 July 2014.