Veteran Resistance Project

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I am a cultural anthropologist (PhD Cornell, 2004) who had been doing ethnographic research with American veterans since 2004. This page is intended as a project description for the next phase of that work, focused on anti-war, pro-peace and justice veterans and their organizations.

The bulk of my previous research with veterans has been on the traditional service organizations, e.g. the American Legion and VFW. Anthropologists prototypically practice participant observation and I imagined I would be a political outsider in such groups. I was, nonetheless welcomed, even though I never made my progressive, anti-war politics a secret–but neither did I belabour them. It turned out this was a common, approved-of strategy in those settings.  Even in these groups I encountered had wildly divergent politics. The general ethos was to tread lightly in discussions of contemporary and past US foreign policy, for the sake of group unity and cooperation toward the goal of helping veterans and their families. It was ok to have a range of political views; what was not ok was to alienate any veteran who might benefit from the support of the group.

However, in the course of the last several years, living as an expatriate in Abu Dhabi, I’ve realized that my personal and research time are both precious, and my research needs to do double duty in support of my values and a politics of peace and demilitarized culture.

My published work can be found on and I am a member of Veterans for Peace, Chapter 168 (Louisville, Kentucky). My academic home the past several years is Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where I am currently (June 2015) an associate professor and the Chair of the Department of Humanities & Social Science.

The Veteran Resistance Project is intended to support ongoing research into issues of veteran activism, civil-military relations in the United States and internationally, the international war system, military masculinity, the militarization of society and the long-term consequences of military service. More specifically, I am interested at the onset in how veterans negotiate and express a peace activist identity, and handle the various stigmas associated with the peace movement.

I will schedule interviews with anti-war veteran activists during 2015 – 2016, particularly during the summer of 2015. This project (U.S. Veteran War Resistance since 9/11, App. No. ZU_068_F) has been cleared by the Research Ethics Committee–the local equivalent of an IRB–of Zayed University.

I will not use your words without your permission and will always seek to make clear that I am a researcher as well as a veteran peace activist. I will safeguard your anonymity and your stories, in both my conversation with others and my formal data collection techniques.

My intention is collaborative and supportive. I stand to benefit from the research, as publication generally advances my career, but in no case will I sell, exchange or use information provided by those who agree to participate in this study for any other purposes. I will share my findings–my best thinking, in combination and synthesis with the best thinking of those who participate–as broadly as possible, with the goal of promoting the values of peace and justice as well as scholarship.

While ethnographic life history interviews are always open-ended, the basic interview protocol (the questions I will ask of those who agree to be interviewed), along with the informed consent statement, can be found here: interview protocol.

Below is the statement of the “research problem” I wrote in the application for an institutionally-funded grant for this project:

Research Problem. The United States has been at war on multiple fronts continuously since the signal event of the 9/11 attacks. Paradoxically, the percentage of veterans in the overall population continues to decrease as the large cohort who were on active duty during the war in Vietnam and the larger cohort who were mobilized during World War II pass away. This project examines the changing nature of veteran experience with regard to issues of alienation, stigma and identity construction in light of these changing demographics and the ongoing war efforts of the United States. The underlying premise of the project is that veterans are not passive receivers of an ex-military social role—stigmatized or otherwise—but active participants, some more, some less, in a veteran way of being and understanding, that generates various forms of political activity. The larger work of which this RIF-funded project is a component looks at veterans in various sorts of organizations, particularly the traditional veteran’s service organizations—especially the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars—as well as those who decline any active participation in veterans’ organizations. This project focuses on a population little-studied by the scholarly mainstream—resistant veterans, or those who construct a veteran identity around an anti-war politics through participation in groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and Veterans for Peace (VFP).

All veterans, regardless of their politics or identification, participate in the management of stigma. This is true even for veterans of “good wars” who emerge from service with relatively valorized identities. Stigma, of course, is the stereotype of Vietnam veterans—but an aura of infectious violence, personified in the mentally unstable sufferer of PTSD, clings to all veterans, even those never exposed directly to combat—which carries its own stigma. Identity management then is a vital component of veteran experience and no more strikingly so than among veterans who adopt anti-war politics. In addition to the contagion of violence, they risk being shunned for their politics, considered as traitors to the nation, the military branch to which they belonged, and their comrades-at-arms. Through interviews and ethnographic observation, this project will document and interpret the identity-strategies used by oppositional veterans. Given the demographic changes that increasingly exacerbate the civil-military divide, how do such resistant vets manage stigma and construct inhabitable identities in the context of a nation-state that has been at work for fifteen years?

Literature Review. Recent work on soldierly and veteran subcultures and experience, including McLeish’s Making War at Fort Hood (2013), Belkin’s Bring Me Men (2012) and particularly the collection of life histories Breaking Ranks (2010) edited by Gutmann and Lutz have begun documenting the experiences of recent American veterans. McLeish’s work, conducted during the height of continuing deployments in the mid-to-late 2000s, highlights the ways in which embodied sensory experience reshapes soldiers, forming an enduring set of self-reinforcing dispositions that veterans continue to carry with them, shaping and often limiting their responses to interpersonal conflict, physical challenges and their own memories. Belkin examines the ways in which a very particular gender position—what he calls “military masculinity”—acts as a center of gravity of military experience.

Military masculinity, with its core values of toughness, loyalty and obedience has often constituted a privileged gender position within masculinity, never “hegemonic” (R. Connell, Masculinities, 1995), that ethnic, racial and class “outsiders”—and in recent years even women—could aspire to via institutional participation. This nominal openness to aspiration provides a key link to the ongoing militarization of national belonging, even at a time when the absolute percentage of soldiers and veterans in society is decreasing. Then there is Gutmann and Lutz’s life history work with Iraq war veterans who have come to reject the mission they originally signed up for. This is a signal collection, compiled by two important scholars of contemporary militarization. Breaking Ranks tells the stories of six veterans in detail, documenting their post-war activism over a number of years, the sorts of sensory-memory and identity issues addressed by McLeish and Belkin, and setting the stage for a richer theorization of anti-war veterans. This project continues the project found in Gutmann and Lutz’s work—documenting the life-experience of veterans who come to take issue with war, or at least specific wars, over the years of their post-service lives.

But more than adding additional data points and continuing longitudinal efforts, the project here seeks to theorize a particular aspect of veteran identity, namely “stigma management.” Following and extending Goffman’s work on stigma (1963)—still inadequately assimilated in the large literature on identity that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., Calhoun 1994), I intend to further develop and apply an aesthetic theory of stigma management which I have been building over the course of recent projects. Anti-war veterans are an important case for the application of this theory—what I call the theory of aesthetic abjection—in that they are faced with the double-barreled stigmata of gender and national connection, embodied being and group belonging. In rejecting war and acts of war, in attempting to reject military masculinity, they reject the patina of earned privilege that goes with it and risk being seen as weak and unmanly. At the same time they are potentially seen as disloyal, even treasonous, to the American national project. The theoretical apparatus in play suggests that anti-war veterans will deploy intensive aesthetic and performative strategies, both individual and collective, to deflect, transform and otherwise manage these stigmas.

Goals of the Research. Although less than 10% of the population of the United States are veterans—a number that is steadily declining in both absolute and relative terms—programs targeting the health, education and welfare of veterans constitute a considerable and open-ended outlay of public resources. Moreover, representations of veteran experience—for example in the Oscar-nominated Hollywood blockbuster American Sniper—continues to be an important component of the culture, popular and otherwise. The changing demographics and the voluntary character of contemporary service mean that for an increasing number of Americans, media representation constitutes their primary interaction with veteran lives. Yet veterans, including anti-war veterans, continue to self-consciously organize themselves for veteran rights, to affect both foreign and domestic policy, and to represent themselves to the wider public.

This project takes as its point of departure the observation that these efforts at veteran self-representation and intervention in the public sphere are under-documented and under-theorized. This is in spite of the fact that war and combat are a major trope in popular culture. As part of a larger project intended to interpret veteran experience more broadly and consider its place in the cultural politics of the contemporary U.S., the work here proposed is intended to accomplish two things: 1) Further document the experiences and strategies of anti-war and resistant veterans who are actively engaged as veterans in groups such as Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans against the War; and, 2) Develop and apply a purpose-built theory of stigma management to the special and potentially highly revealing case of resistant veterans in an effort to extend understanding of their experience. Thus one ethnographic/empirical goal and one theoretical will anchor an intervention in ongoing efforts to better understand the trajectory of American society and policy with respect to civil-military relations, representations of military experience, and the cultural politics of resistance.

Works Cited

Belkin, A. 2012. Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Facade of American Empire, 1898-2001. New York: Columbia University Press.

Calhoun, C. (ed). 1994. Social Theory and the Politics of Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.

Connell, R. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gutman, M. and C. Lutz. 2010 Breaking Ranks: Iraq Veterans Speak Out against the War. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McLeish, K. 2013. Making War at Fort Hood: Life and Uncertainty in a Military Community. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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3 thoughts on “Veteran Resistance Project

  1. This is “the bomb” Steven! Just kidding, “a peach” of a project.

    I suppose I am still in process of reintegration to society after PhD work, never completed, at UNC Chapel Hill in Sociology, and I know several of folks you cite. As a “not-conventionally-employed” male, I feel problems of masculinity and trauma of veterans are intense special case of more general problem of reformulating identity after trauma in an anti-hegemonic way in our time. Regarding the aesthetic, performative strategy, I must say that while the Swords to Plowshares Belltower initiative which I am currently pursuing (see website) is very intentional at a political/ideological level, I can’t help but be aware of gendered and psychic resonance of publicly erecting a shimmering tower in various places that all kinds of people make inscriptions on! Nonetheless, I feel that its ephemeral nature — the fact that it is a phallic monument, but not granite and bronze with inscriptions chosen by a few powerful, nationalist men, but with inscriptions that blow in the wind added by a multitude of diverse people, makes it something of an “anti-monument” and expressive of an emerging amorphous gender identity and (I hope) post-nationalist, less militarist culture. Writing this makes me wonder whether I am moving toward reintegrating “academic” into my identity after breaking with it, but maybe as “public intellectual” (and I hope accessible) rather than trapped in an ivory tower.

  2. this vet would rather take a batieuful redhead to lunch. I and other vets appreciate the thought but we would rather enjoy the freedoms our services has bought us. We would do it again and again just to have these freedoms. NEVER SURRENDER THESE FREEDOMS!!!!! We will NEVER surrender them as long as one of us are alive. Just help us protect the freedoms all vets like myself and others have pledged our lives to defend. We must never fail! We Will never fail.

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