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Veterans, Civilians, and the “Dangerous Gap”: NEH’s Standing Together Initiative to Address the Experience of War

Allen Mikaelian, May 2014

At a National Endowment for the Humanities event launching the Standing Together initiative, film­maker JulieHera DeStephano spoke of the “dangerous gap in understanding” between those who have served in war and those who have not. Tommy Sowers, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs in the US Department of Veterans Affairs, spoke of this gap in terms of the tiny portion of the US population who have served (less than 1 percent). And Captain Robert Timberg, a former marine who was grievously wounded in Vietnam, attempted to describe his efforts to bridge that gap, and understand what was “essentially human” about “how I decided not to die,” words he read from his memoir while trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears.

Credit: JulieHera DeStephano.<p> Film crew working on Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home.The Standing Together initiative has started with NEH funding of five pilot programs that “use humanities scholarship to examine war and its aftermath.” The NEH hopes that the humanities can narrow the dangerous gap mentioned by DeStephano, even while acknowledging that those who have not experienced war cannot fully know what veterans know. It does this for the benefit of veterans, whose postwar transitions will be facilitated by these programs, but also to inform those who have not served.

The Talking Service Project will use the anthology Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian as the basis for discussion groups. Literature and Medicine for Veterans targets those who provide medical care to returning veterans and uses readings in the humanities to help develop understanding of wartime experiences and veterans’ needs. YouStories is a theater program that uses classical Greek drama to demonstrate the commonality of wartime experiences across time.

The Warrior-Scholar Project, piloted at Yale and expanding to Harvard and the University of Michigan, gives veterans a two-week “academic boot camp” to help with the transition from the military world to the “fundamentally different social and cultural environment” on campus. The Yale project uses Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Thucydides, and Herodotus to help develop study skills. And at Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, the Military History Workshop will demonstrate to military historians the possibilities of digital research methodologies like geographic information systems, network analysis, and deep mapping. The project hopes to open new vistas for, and awaken new interest in, the military as a subject for historians.

The NEH is also highlighting a number of other projects that involve veterans in its report to Congress. The Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida, received support for preservation and restoration of artifacts, including objects, personal papers, and institutional records. The commemoration and preservation of the SEALs’ history has taken on renewed importance: their high-profile raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound is well-known. Less so are the heavy losses they have suffered in Afghanistan. The project 100 Faces of War ­Experience features portraits of and essays by veterans. Portraits included in this work in progress have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, the Rayburn House Office Building, and the Massachusetts State House. The first exhibition of the completed project is scheduled to be held at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago between November 2014 and May 2015.

Another initiative receiving NEH support, Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home documents the transitions of women veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Producer/director ­JulieHera DeStefano spoke at the April launch of the initiative about how her interest in women veterans’ homecomings led her to a long embedding with a unit in Afghanistan. When a returned veteran noted that no one can understand the transition from war to civilian life without experience of a war zone, DeStefano decided to make the journey. The result is a feature film that will be released in 2014, but this is only one part of the project. An online, searchable video archive will feature the film’s complete ­Afghanistan interviews for researchers and may be, according to DeStefano, the largest existing archive of interviews with women veterans.

The NEH, on the initiative website, states, “Modern wars take place on such a large scale that one person’s experiences can seem lost in the numbers.” Historians in this magazine often reflect on developing empathy and understanding of individual experiences, along with the need to connect these experiences to broader societal shifts (see the October 2013 issue in particular). Closing gaps in understanding, especially for those who weren’t there is, after all, what historians do.

And even though history is only a small part of this initiative, Tommy Sowers, who received his PhD from the Department of Government at the London School of Economics, singled out the discipline to make his point about how the Department of Veterans Affairs and its constituency had a special connection to the humanities. “History,” he noted during his remarks at the NEH’s launch, “is a part of us. It is who we are.”

Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.

The initiative’s homepage is at www.neh.gov/veterans/standing-together.




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