Student Veterans and the Rise of the Military-Friendly Campus
Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2017, 280 pages
Book Review published on: March 8, 2018
Grateful Nation, a scholarly work based on a dissertation by Ellen Moore, is packed fuller than the rucksack of a paratrooper jumping into a two-week field problem. Moore opens the book with her personal background that provides insight into the approach for her research: “My interest in veteran support and higher education is rooted in my family history. I was born on a U.S. military base to an Army captain father and a pacifist mother, and have lived in communities where I was exposed to the diverse worldviews of both military members and civilians.”
This dichotomy in her parents’ worldviews is evident throughout the book. Moore expresses a seemingly irrational concern that support for veterans constitutes support for the nation’s wars (Iraq and Afghanistan at the time of her writing). Moore explains, “My hope is that this book will provide analysis to help people differentiate between support for veterans and support for the wars in which they fought. It challenges dualistic understandings of pro- or anti-military, veteran, and war to broaden our discussion about what it means to be a soldier, veteran, or civilian in a country at war.”
At various points throughout the book, Moore explains her reasoning for originally beginning the undertaking and how it then morphed once she began. In keeping with her parental incongruity, Moore tells us, “This book is a meditation on the interplay between civilian academic and military worlds, but it didn’t start out that way. It began as a research project about veterans in higher education and ended up as an exploration of social processes of militarization and education.”
While the title of the book, Grateful Nation: Student Veterans and the Rise of the Military-Friendly Campus, seems innocuous enough, Moore has an underlying anxiety about “militarization” and that the “military-friendly campus” is really a Trojan horse to undermine the academy and the public’s ability to appropriately evaluate the merit and righteousness of the country’s military undertakings. This concern rises to a level of near paranoia in Moore’s analysis: “I find, among other things, that the simple gesture of thanking soldiers for their service can be transformed into tacit support for war. In offering this gesture, I ask that we carefully consider not only what we honor with our gratitude but also what we suppress.” Moore’s apprehension that simply thanking a veteran or soldier for serving constitutes tacit support for the politician’s decisions to wage war seems a stretch.
In a chapter titled “Campus Veteran Support Initiatives,” Moore laments the way colleges have adapted to support veterans. Not because the initiative is inherently bad, but instead because it could suppress democratic debate. Moore’s rationale is “the presence of student veterans on college campuses transforms institutional practices and discourse. Institutional initiatives designed to welcome veterans to college ultimately welcome military viewpoints and suppress debate about the current wars.” Recognizing that Moore’s research primarily takes place at University of California–Berkeley and other California college campuses, one could argue the only way there will be any “democratic debate” in that “safe space” is if there are military veterans present.
To her great credit, Moore sympathetically portrays the challenges faced by the thirty-three male and seventeen female veterans she interviews for her research. She covers the breadth of military challenges, from sexual trauma to moral injury and posttraumatic stress disorder. Moore uses the ethnographic method “to explore the experiences and identities produced at the dynamic intersections of civilian, military, and student practices by focusing on processes and practices that socially make and unmake soldiers.” These interviews chronicle how veterans adapt to the college experience and how the institutions are adapting to serve them.
Grateful Nation does pay homage to the role that student-led veteran’s clubs play in providing support for the veteran. As a former infantryman who became the president of the University of Maryland Veteran’s Club (1983-1985) and the father of an infantryman who became the Student Veterans of Louisiana State University president (2015-2017), I am a firm believer in the role these student-led organizations play in helping student-veterans transition from the military to an academic environment. As one of Moore’s subjects explained, “The SU Vets Club for me was a very necessary thing. I don’t know why any [veteran] who came here wouldn’t join.”
Moore’s praise for student led veterans’ clubs did not come without criticism. She concluded that veterans who did not support the current U.S. military actions, did not enjoy their experiences in the military, and female interviewees, largely did not find the clubs inviting. The “male-focused heteronormative culture that dominated the SU Veterans club” was one such reason Moore offered for this alienation, explaining that one club “reproduced and defended the masculinized culture of the military and disciplined those who challenged militarized practices.”
In spite of the relatively small and geographically homogenous sampling of veterans, the book raises important insights as to what the veterans’ presence on campus might mean. And, much like the paratrooper’s rucksack, there is a lot in Grateful Nation to unpack.
Book Review written by: Col. Robert G. Young, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Gordon, Georgia