Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 6: Why Do Veterans Organize? (1946)

The majority of veterans from this war, as from other American wars, will be products of a citizens’ army—men who left workbench or farm, office or classroom to shoulder a gun in crisis. They have never quite lost the feeling that they are still civilians, as well as soldiers. In fact, the unsophisticated interest with which they look back as veterans upon their interlude of Army service sets them apart from the Regulars.

And yet, among all servicemen, the great bond is that which separates them from a purely civilian world. They are the Ins, and all others the Outs—which is one psychological reason why men organize.

Veterans believe that they understand each other better than civilians can understand them. A serviceman’s wife, with her sympathetic insight, probably comes as close to understanding him as anyone at home. His mother and father are also able to meet him more than halfway. But casual acquaintances, neighbors, even old friends, too often irritate him by their lack of comprehension. Morbid curiosity is only a degree worse than idle curiosity. “What was it like to kill a man?” can set any veteran’s teeth on edge. Starry-eyed talk about “what a wonderful experience” military service must have been, or sly kidding about sweethearts in every port, may give less offense, but grows tiresome after the hundredth time. The public is now being educated toward better manners, in respect to returning soldiers, than in 1919. But breaks will be made. And they serve to drive the veteran back into the company of his own kind.

Today’s veteran discovers that some people—including some prospective employers—expect to find him a little queer. One or two books and a handful of magazine articles have told the American public that the soldier often comes home bitter, cynical, brooding. In terms of the majority, this is hooey, as the veteran knows, and he resents it. A smattering of popular information about neuropsychiatry leads some excitable civilians to exaggerate the number and seriousness of N.P. discharges. That the majority of neurotics were screened out at induction centers and training camps and that men sent into battle were much better balanced and of tougher mental fiber than an equal cross section of civilians cannot be stated too emphatically. As the public begins to meet the returning veterans in large numbers, to see their faces and watch their behavior, foolish talk of this kind is disappearing.


When the big parade is over

The civilian is apt to be more emotional than the soldier about war, also peace. From an armchair-bloodthirstiness while the shooting lasts, he often turns, once it is over, to forgetting it altogether. Sometimes a fuzzy-minded civilian thinks of the returning soldier as a “trained killer” about to launch a crime wave; he may even take a pitying or patronizing tone. The average veteran chafes at both these silly attitudes. The 1920 National Convention of the Legion, for instance, passed a resolution asking the press “to subordinate whatever slight news value there may be in playing up the ex-servicemen angle in stories of crime or offense against the peace.” Its Film Service in 1922 released a movie, Skin Deep, showing the triumph of a soldier’s better nature over the evil influences of boyhood neglect.

Then, in the mid-1930’s, a magazine advertisement sponsored by World Peaceways showed a disabled World War I soldier in a wheel chair, under the caption “Hello, Sucker!” Society, of course, had asked and drafted the soldier to make his sacrifice for the common safety, given him cheers and free drinks and promised him a nation fit for heroes to live in—but these things the professional pacifists sometimes overlooked. Among the civilian majority, the recoil is never so extreme. But a widespread desire to “forget the war” and its vital meaning, the prize for which so much sweat and blood were spent, makes the veteran and his friends all the more jealous of their memories. They grow irritated at attempts, in schoolbooks and classrooms, to debunk American history in general and their war in particular—as anybody knows who has read the minutes of Grand Army and Confederate Veteran reunions, or of the Legion’s American­ism Committee.

Often the homecoming soldier, with injuries that make him self-conscious, or a tinge of battle shock, or merely the edginess of life’s uncertainties past and to come, finds himself raw and touchy in spots. Though he is not bitter, he may become so under civilian teasing or neglect or unappreciativeness. In such a state of mind, friendship with other veterans takes on added importance. It has a steadying effect and shows a man he is not alone.

Veterans and jobs

The returning soldier’s greatest anxiety is usually about a job, and here veterans’ organizations can play an important part. Always in the past, the end of a big war has brought great economic strains and readjustments—with cancellation of war contracts, a glut of labor, and scarcities of material needed for peacetime manufacture. An honorable discharge has always been a good recommendation in job-hunting, until the market is flooded and war service becomes an old story. Sometimes a minority of veterans bring their buddies into bad repute among civilians by airing the theory that the world owes them a living, or by idling or malingering on duty. There is a significant word, three hundred years old, for loafing on the job—“soldiering.” On the other side of the fence, the veteran’s temper grows short when he recalls all he heard about high wages, strikes in wartime, chiselers, rent gougers, and profiteers. In times of economic tension, both sides incline to exaggerate the faults of the other.

In the wake of World War I, the Seventy-seventh Division Association in New York City ran an employment agency which found jobs for about ten thousand unemployed men—at a clerical cost of seventy-five cents per man as compared with five dollars per placement at the City Employment Bureau—and interviewed occasional employers who had begrudged giving the soldier his old job back. When told that the Association thought there must be some mistake and wanted to get the story straight before giving it to the press, the employer usually gulped and said, “Why sure, Joe can have his job back.”

This group of veterans and their friends also set up a loan fund to tide men over the reconversion period when they needed new clothes and tools and other equipment. No duns were ever sent after these loans, but practically every cent was repaid. The Association indoctrinated its men with certain ideas: that every soldier deserved a decent job, not necessarily a cushy one; that Army teamwork, technology, and discipline had made him a better worker; but that it was up to him to prove it. The Association became a permanent veterans’ organization, on a local scale, with a clubhouse and many recreational facilities.

Today, with the provisions in the Selective Service Act about a veteran’s legal right to his old job and the still more important safeguards and benefits offered by the GI Bill in easing his return to civil life, he will no longer have to beg, argue, or depend upon the whims of private generosity. His rights and dignity are safeguarded by the law. Does this mean that the usefulness of veterans’ organizations, in respect to a veteran’s readjustment, is out of date? Veterans are the ideal counselors of veterans, and the seniority of a veteran of World War I is sometimes a valuable thing in the advising of younger men. Youthful veterans just released from the Army are often more willing to accept advice from private organizations than through official channels, however expert the government adviser may be. And in knowing local conditions, or spending time more lavishly on individual problems, the hometown post can offer a valuable supplement to federal agencies, while helping to steer the veteran to the proper sources.

The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Disabled American Veterans have their rehabilitation and employment services in all cities and many towns of the United States.

Where do we go from here?

Once every gun that a soldier cleaned, every drill he performed, every mile he marched, had one final purpose—victory over the enemy. Life was simple and clear cut. Most of its important decisions were made for him in advance. Somebody once spoke about “the peacefulness of being at war.”

With that goal won, the drive begins to slacken. Along with the letdown of demobilization the ex-soldier needs to make a hundred decisions for himself and to pick up the loose ends of his old life as a civilian. He often feels confused, frustrated, even a little purposeless. In this state of mind he naturally thinks back to the collective spirit and comradeship of Army days. These veterans are his friends, with whom he went through hell and high water.

Veterans’ organizations, to thrive and succeed, need some directing purpose. Beyond the sentiment of relighting old campfires, in memory, and in helping the new veteran in such obvious needs as his mustering-out settlement with Uncle Sam and the first job, what is their sustaining purpose?

In general terms, the answer is obvious: to promote group welfare and recognition and the good estate of the nation in years ahead. In specific terms the answer is not so simple. What is best for the veteran as a class? And how can he best serve his country, no longer as a citizen soldier but as a soldier citizen?

Next section: How Can Veterans’ Organizations Serve the Nation?