Since before the Roman emperor Septimius Severus proclaimed on his death bed to, “enrich the soldiers and despise all others” (Cassius Dio, Roman History), veterans have been the object of political scrutiny in nearly every major conflict. World War II saw one of the greatest deployments of soldiers and the greatest loss of life in human history. In the end, many came back from the horrors of conflict to societies which were unable to care for them. Disillusionment, anger, and emotional breakdown was endemic among the returning warrior caste, yet popular culture paints post-war veterans as stable, functioning members of society. Although governments around the world handled the veteran issue in varying way, they were all unified in the general pressure that their re-assimilation placed upon the state.
Not all veterans were treated equally in the post-war setting. In the case of the Soviet Union, state media portrayed the veterans as heroes who were fully cared for by the government. Ostensibly, this was true; but Richard Dale writes that Red Army soldiers were made fully aware of the benefits available to them, but not the full details of them (Dale, pg.115). His article takes the side of the veterans as mistreated and misunderstood members of society whose integration created friction with their civilian counterparts. The Soviet Union’s situation differed from that of say the United States in that the entire nation was consumed by war. Leningrad, in particular, hosted battle hardened citizens who had survived the years of battle and starvation and emerged into an insular society which was unconcerned with the woes of others.
On the flip side, veterans held a considerable amount of bargaining power in acquiring privileges. Crotty and Edele described in their paper the factors which went into the legitimacy of veteran restitution, such as moral debt, democratic/non-democratic natures of government, existence of welfare, and the unity of veteran movements (p. 19). Make no mistake, veterans were owed a great deal for their sacrifices, but many nations were not able to “foot the bill” in a devastated post-war setting. Because of this factor, many veteran’s issues went ignored or were categorized as handled by the state, such as with the Soviet Union. On the civilian front, veterans provided a symbol for gender equality advocates to show deconstruct the enduring idea of male masculinity. Jarvis argued that the mental states of veterans and their inability to receive proper neuropsychiatric care was a keystone issue that would help bring down the veil of pride and manhood that merely prolonged emotional wounds (p. 98).
Ultimately, these issues resonate today with the veterans of the United States’ longest persisting conflict producing many of the same anxieties of World War II. We can learn from the lessons of the post-war period to improve on our own health care and veteran affairs. As of now, there is a growing divide between the civilian world and the military one which threatens to produce the same resentments that plagued the Vietnam-era and numerous other situations. As it was in the time of Marius during the Roman Republic, the proper care of veterans plays a major stake in the future of many nations. The above image, which depicts veterans protesting the closing a WWII memorial shows the influence these old warriors still possess in today’s conscious. We need to respect the sacrifices of troops and ensure that they receive the proper care required to help them continue serving their nation in peace as they did in war.
C Jarvis, ‘If He Comes Home Nervous -‘ US World War II Neuropsychiatric Casualties and Postwar Masculinities, Journal of Men’s Studies 17.2 (Spring 2009).pdf
R Dale, Rats and Resentment – The Demobilization of the Red Army in Postwar Leningrad, 1945-50, Journal of Contemporary History 45.1 (Jan. 2010).pdf
R Jefferson, ‘Enabled Courage’ – Race, Disability, and Black World War II Veterans in Postwar America, Historian 65.5 (Fall 2003).pdf