Words and the Divide: A Veteran’s Experience Facilitating Veterans Book Group

By Jeff Sychterz

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Veterans Book Group is a statewide program serving Maine Veterans: combat Veterans, women Veterans, and all service members.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln questions whether words have the power to give meaning to the world. He argues that the company assembled at a Gettysburg cemetery cannot consecrate the ground because “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” He then goes on to suggest that mere words cannot last long in human memory; he insists that they won’t be remembered at all.

Veterans Book GroupYet over 150 years later, members of a Veterans Book Group sat around a table on a mild April evening in Bangor, Maine, and discussed Lincoln’s most famous speech. It might seem strange that a book group sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council would select a reading that so memorably questions the power of words, but the theme of the book group was “The Stories We Tell,” and Lincoln’s speech was one of a dozen readings that explored how we remember, represent, memorialize and talk about service in the armed forces.

The Veterans in the room were a diverse group; they represented three branches of the military and a mix of peacetime and wartime service, from a self-described REMF (Rear Echelon Mother F—er) to combat Veterans of Iraq and Vietnam, and even a Veteran of pre-Vietnam Cold War covert operations. So we had a wide range of ages and experiences represented at the table. Meanwhile, those assembled also held different attitudes toward the written word, from members who were, as one put it, “not big readers,” to others who read all five sessions worth of readings in the first week— and wanted more.

It was a productive group to wrestle with Lincoln’s concerns about what words can do for us and how they shape our memories of military and wartime service. The members were friendly and talkative, and they didn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. In fact, what I appreciated most about the group was their openness and curiosity about other points of view. If one member expressed a very different opinion about an issue, other members didn’t defend themselves or argue their points; instead they wanted to hear more.

This curiosity led to some important revelations. For example, as we discussed the Gettysburg Address and the issue of memorialization, one member asked the group, “Do you like to march in Memorial Day parades?” As we polled those around the table, we discovered a divide: some members insisted on marching as a point of pride, while others expressed varying degrees of discomfort with participating in such events. As we each shared our motivations, we moved away from the public, national meaning of military service and began to wrestle with its personal meaning. In that space, we discovered that this ambiguity toward memorial celebrations actually revealed a deeper similarity of attitude toward our own military experiences.

We discovered that most of us around the table shared a common timeline, but that each of us were at a different point in that timeline. Everyone in the room had already left the military, some longer ago than others. However, independent of branch of service or combat experience, most of us had felt very ambivalent about our service immediately after getting out. Many members explained that they did not want to go to military events, talk about the military, or even to identify as Veterans in the years just after their service. However, as time passed, we tended to think more about our years in uniform and the role that they played, and continue to play, in our history and identity. The farther removed from our service, the more we began to identify as Veterans.

Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg ultimately argues that the spoken word is too ephemeral to “hallow” a place. This sense of the sacred was raised by many of the texts we discussed over the ten weeks. Even in our moment of discovery as we discussed marching in parades, we recognized that our own personal sense of the sacred comes as a function of time and distance. Meanwhile, words play a key role in demarcating that sacred space, whether it is a patch of hallowed ground or a personal point of pride. Coming to the book group—engaging with these texts and with each other— was a way of connecting to and making sense of our own service.

“…believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility—it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and Veterans off the hook from needing to explain.” 

– Phil Klay, Veteran and author of Redeployment

This issue of service and identity is one I have thought a lot about. When he poses words against action, Lincoln implies a gap between the military, who act on the battlefield, and civilians, who speak once the battle is done. This divide is how we often frame military service: an experiential gap that divides one group of Americans from another. As it is sometimes put, you can’t understand unless you’ve been there. In one of our readings, Phil Klay argues that such a divide is dangerous for democracy because “believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility—it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and Veterans off the hook from needing to explain.”

As Klay puts it, this divide between words and action has dire political and social consequences. But it can have personal consequences, too. I attended the book group as an academic facilitator, but I am a Veteran as well. I have struggled for years to reconcile these two very different sides of my identity. After all, in the way that America frames the Culture Wars, military Veteran and college English professor represent polar opposites. In the book group, however, I discovered that other Veterans share the same struggle to bridge a divided identity. It’s a division that has been formed by the way that Americans talk about military service.

However, programs like Veterans Book Group are closing that divide, programs which bring the worlds of literature and the military together to discuss what is sacred to the world, to the nation, and, finally, to us.

 

Jeff Sychterz teaches English literature and composition at the University of Maine at Augusta. He is a U.S. Navy Veteran, and he facilitated the Maine Humanities Council Veterans Book Group at University of Maine at Augusta in Bangor in the spring of 2015.