The closest familial connection I have to the American military is my paternal grandfather who served as a Health Officer in the National Institutes of Health during the Vietnam War. Besides this tenuous connection, my main source of news about the American military arrives in the form of New York Times articles that flood my inbox when another beheading or terrorist attack or surge in the Middle East happens.
I realized how little I actually knew about the American military when Marine-turned-journalist Thomas Brennan and photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly spoke in my Gateway to Global Affairs class in September. Brennan and O’Reilly, who had been embedded in Brennan’s squad, both talked about and showed photos that illustrated the daily routines they experienced; yet somehow I had been ignorant of the social atmosphere of the military and the mundane tasks they engaged in.
I learned that my lack of close family ties to the military is not unique; in fact, political science professor Jolyon Howorth noted that ever since the change from a conscription army to an all-volunteer force in 1973, the American population “has lost contact with the military.”
Howorth attributed this growing divide to the media as well. The media is fundamental to the democratic process, yet it failed to come up with a fundamental criticism of war until it was too late, he explained. Americans therefore “have no idea what ‘American-led’ means” when discussing foreign wars.
Rob Henderson ’18, an Eli Whitney student-veteran, joined the army when he was seventeen. He did not come from a military background but felt a desire to aid the U.S. intervention in Iraq. He noted how he wanted to have a personal connection to the military, rather than relying on newspapers because, as he said, “by and large the media is sensational.”
Brennan also emphasized the American media’s focus on sensational stories rather than on representations of mundane daily life; this phenomenon often leads to a biased view of the military. After retiring in 2012 due to a traumatic brain injury sustained during deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, Brennan created The War Horse, a nonprofit online newsroom which curates stories written by veterans in order to “publish journalism that the American public deserves.” By encouraging the dissemination of these stories, he said that he hopes this will allow for individual stories and experiences to be heard, rather than treated as sensational headlines. “If people would ask more questions, and told more stories, and learned and shared more,” Brennan said, “then the military-society divide would shrink quite a bit.”
While Brennan’s publication targets readers around the world, we can contribute to this goal on campus ourselves. Alex Frank LAW ’18, deployed in counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, retired in 2014 and returned to a collegiate environment. He said he wishes Yale emphasized a greater sense of common heritage and community. He noted that there is too often a divide in the Yale community which prevents any productive academic or inquisitive discourse from taking place, a lack of communication which in turn facilitates a misunderstanding and disconnect between those with military experience and those without. “Just ask questions,” Frank said “If [you] are interested in something specific ask about that, otherwise ask about the mundane.”
However, there are initiatives in New Haven which aim to encourage discussion between military personnel and civilians, thus minimizing this divide by making military personnel more accessible and more visible. Captain O-6 Christopher Mace works for the ROTC department of the University of Connecticut Nathan Hale Battalion, but since August 2016 he has been working as the head of the ROTC division and an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Haven. These positions, he said, allow him not only to build trust with other members of the community but also to broaden his own perspective.
This expansion of understanding is crucial, as Mace explained that the gap between the American public and the military will not be bridged “until we get used to working together more often and creating a relationship of connection and of understanding each other.”
There are similar opportunities for Yale students to get to know military personnel. The U.S. Army War College Fellows Program selects approximately 40 individuals with master’s degrees to spend time at universities like Yale, Harvard and Columbia to encourage these individuals to broaden their perspectives and share military experience with the community. Sara Dudley, a War College Fellow sponsored by the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, will audit classes for a year and share her knowledge as a nearly 20-year finance officer with students. Although Dudley said that Yale has not yet incorporated the experience of military personnel into as many curricula as possible, auditing classes has already challenged her to think about the military from a larger perspective and “in particular to provide information and clarify the military’s role and how we play into the larger image of the nation.”
Jami Carlacio, who teaches the ENGL 114 seminar, Democracy and Media in the Digital Age, said that the media has become a tool that portrays sensational military narratives that appeal to the American public. The rise of social media has also facilitated a society in which “anybody can post anything.” Both factors lead to insufficient information and a distorted image of the military.
This image that the American media has imprinted upon the public is not wholly representative of the army in reality. Contrary to public opinion, the military is actually much more forward-thinking than the public gives it credit for. Mace said that the military culture is often much more demographically diverse than the average American would believe, describing it as “a cross section of American culture.”
Photography is also a central influencing factor. Since his first trip to Iraq in 2006, Peter van Agtmael ’03 strives to “look at layers of society and societies [America has] impacted” by addressing the power imbalance inherent in creating a photograph as well as the myth that all that is factual is truthful. At a discussion held at the Yale Daily News building, he spoke about how deceased American soldiers are often portrayed in a bloodless, covered, silent and respectful manner whereas the “other” is photographed in a gruesome, bloody and graphic manner.
“We’ve fallen into the trap of dehumanizing people for the sake of casual aesthetics,” he said.
During a conversation between photographer An-My Lê and van Agtmael hosted by the YUAG yesterday, van Agtmael further illustrated such a disconnect between the public and military through his photograph from 2010 which depicts a mostly empty audience at a soldier’s funeral. “We were paying lip service to these conflicts when in reality we were really detached,” he said.
Van Agtmael’s work is part of the exhibit “Before the Event / After the Fact: Contemporary Perspectives on War” organized by the Yale University Art Gallery that aims to challenge viewer’s expectations of war photography. Judy Ditner, the Richard Benson assistant curator of photography and digital media, organized this exhibit in the hopes that it will “provide a forum to engage in a wider conversation surrounding our assumptions and biases more broadly.
When I started drafting this article, I thought I would end up writing primarily about the disconnect between the military and the public. And to a certain extent, this divide does exist, but it did not arise spontaneously. This disconnect was facilitated by the media, by the stories and photos it chose to represent the acts of the military to a large audience. The public has evolved to consume sensational stories with an immediate impact that appeal to these common beliefs and that are easy to digest.
This type of media is not suited to provide what needs to be presented to the public. If we are continually fed this cycle of sensational and exaggerated violence, then not only will we come to expect this behavior from the military, but individual stories will necessarily be lost. Don’t rely on the media to present the narratives that need to be illustrated, so when in doubt, ask questions.
Chloé Glass | email@example.com .