#1028: How do I talk about my military service in leftist spaces?

Dear Captain Awkward,

When I was seventeen, in order to escape an emotionally and physically abusive mother, I joined the Air Force. However, about six months into a four year contract, I realized that my priorities (and my politics) had shifted, and that I could no longer justify to myself being in the military as a positive or moral choice. Unfortunately, short of getting pregnant or deliberately getting in trouble (neither of which I wanted to do), I had no way of getting out early.

Now, I’ve made it. I’m less than a month away from separating, and I’ve made plans to attend college and study biology. When I’m a civilian again, the people and organizations that I most want to interact with politically are very left-leaning, often with an emphasis on criticizing the military industrial complex. In a situation like that, I don’t know how to bring up the fact that I’m a veteran. I don’t want to lie to people, but I find it embarrassing, and I also worry that people might distrust me because of it.

I guess the core of my question is, how do I talk to people about something I did in my past that I no longer condone, and even actively oppose?

A Regretful Veteran
(she/her pronouns)

Dear Regretful,

Goat Lady here, in my capacity both as a Navy veteran who participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America Veterans Working Group.

It’s true that there are some leftist groups that won’t want to have you as a member because you served. There are some fellow leftists who will indeed say very shitty things to and about you because of your service. You only have to take a look at recent discourse around the West Point Commie to see that. It sucks and it hurts to have people with whom you share goals and values reject you as irredeemably tainted because you made a hard choice to survive. But be up front about your service, because it’s better to know up front than have them discover it months down the line. Just say “Hey, I’m a military veteran, is that going to be a problem?” You don’t owe anyone further explanation or justification, and you don’t have to disclose your abuse to them if you don’t want to. Nor should you stick with any group that requires you to hate yourself as a condition of membership. We leftist vets already have quite enough complicated feelings about our service without being required to take on everyone else’s as well.

It may also help to keep a few things in mind:

1) No one is born radicalized. Even those people who will condemn you had to come to it via their own path.

2) Everyone makes choices to survive. Only the very, very lucky and/or privileged have never compromised in order to stay safe, housed, and fed. Even the great hero of labor organizing Utah Phillips was radicalized while he was in the Army.

3) No leftist revolution has succeeded without the participation of soldiers and veterans.

You will find people who will stand in solidarity with you. The PSL (Party for Socialism and Liberation) may have a lot of hard liners who reject those who have served, but their official policy is to actively recruit active duty military and veterans. The DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) membership tends to be more moderate, and their Veterans Working Group is an amazing source of solidarity and support.

Don’t give up if the first group you try is hostile. There are comrades who will welcome you with open arms out there. I realize I’m biased, but do consider the DSA and joining the VWG (particularly one of the chat channels – or as one VWG member put it when I asked for input, “tell her to slide up in the VWG DMs”) so that you at least have a reliable source of online support, fellowship, and solidarity while you look for your local activist home. Don’t be afraid to look outside your college for leftist groups as well. If you’re going to school in a major metro area there may be several groups available to you. You don’t have to stick with the first group you find if it’s not a good fit for you.

Remember too that your military experience gives you valuable perspective when criticizing the military industrial complex – what many leftists discuss in theoreticals, you have seen up close and way too personal. You also know a lot at this point about organizing people to work as a team toward a common goal, and good and bad ways to keep them motivated and focused on the way. There are reasons that right wing hate groups have pushed to recruit active duty military and veterans, and any leftist group that doesn’t see our organizing skills as valuable is being incredibly impractical.

There are some pretty common arguments from leftists who reject any form of solidarity with military members and veterans. “You were a willing agent of US imperialism.” “You pursued your own liberation at the expense of black and brown people in the global south.” “You contributed to the murder of civilians by the military industrial complex.” “You could have pursued conscientious objector status.” And you and I know, as veterans, that these things are true, and we will carry what we did and didn’t do for the rest of our lives. I don’t recommend getting into fights over these things. The people who say them are waiting for you to get defensive and try to justify yourself. My best script for you is, “That’s true. But I can’t change my past, and that’s why I’m choosing to try and change the future now that I’m out.”

And if you’re a leftist who hasn’t been in the military and a veteran shows up – we know. Believe me, we know. Generally speaking, veterans do not show up in leftist spaces (as distinct from liberal spaces) without having realized these things. You aren’t telling us anything we don’t think about with far more regularity than you do. The only people who think about it more are the victims of US imperialism. If your organization doesn’t welcome veterans or military members, just make it clear on your posters and websites and move on, and save us all some trouble.

Letter Writer, you are not irredeemably tainted by your military service. You are allowed to work in solidarity with others to change the world for the better. I promise there are people who will be in solidarity with you, who will see you as an asset and recognize that everyone makes choices for survival that they might not make in an otherwise ideal world. And I promise that you will find them.

In solidarity,
Comrade Goat Lady

203 thoughts on “#1028: How do I talk about my military service in leftist spaces?

  1. I used to work for an Israeli human rights organization that had a mixed staff and handle legal cases of Palestinian human rights abuses and represented individual families. Among the Jewish Israeli staff, a number had served in the Israeli army in various positions. And even working there with an American Jewish background, my own path wasn’t ideologically smooth.

    I share all this to say that lots of us have different paths to a more leftist ideology. With anything there will be people happy just to argue, but being direct and straight forward about your path is truly the best approach. Being able to say “this moment was an epiphany” or “seeing this system in action” – once that story feels natural for you to say – talking about what you are happy to share and avoiding issues that you feel distract from where you are now will become your best ally.

    I first went to Israel on the free Birthright trip – a trip that for a number on the left can be loaded. And being able to acknowledge – I was 18 and wasn’t educated on the issue, but it opened my eyes to a reality where I knew I wasn’t seeing the whole picture. I’m not here to argue with anyone about a choice an 18 year old made, but I’m always happy to talk about how it impacted me for someone who actually wants to listen.

    Whether it’s the military or smaller choices, there are probably lots of people out there who can understand with those growth moments. And the people arguing for its own sake you’ll be able to weed out in time.

    All the best!!

  2. I had a very similar conversation with my hippie anti-war mother who was soldier bashing. (I have many friends in the armed forces.) I reminded her that a college education is expensive, and many soldiers join specifically for the GI Bill, like her father did. Other soldiers join because they need to support their families and being a soldier is a profession.

    Go you for getting yourself out of a toxic living situation and sticking with your service so you can go to school!!!

    1. Bassist Les Claypool, of Primus, was in the Army to pay for Art school. I didn’t know you could do that.

  3. I agree with the above, which I experienced in a different context. When I was young, I worked in animal research facility. It horrified me then, and it horrifies me now. When I have reason to bring up my experiences, I am very candid about my reasons for taking and keeping the job, and very explicit about the pros and cons. I have no doubt that some animal lovers consider me beyond redemption, but most people are interested in my critiques due to my actual inside knowledge. Use that knowledge as an asset and acknowledge the toll it has taken on you. Good luck!

  4. LW: well done on both getting out of your home situation and successfully completing your four years!

    Goat Lady: none of the links you include are working :/

  5. All I can say is, as a mother I was hugely grateful to the liberal young vet who I met in a social context, who was willing to answer the questions of my 20-year-old son as he tried to decide whether to enlist.

  6. LW, one of my dearest friends joined the Marines to get away from her mother. I get it, and why this was an attractive option for you. It’s a guaranteed out from an abuser, and you should have money for college at the end. (Make sure you’re applying for scholarships, too! My friend who is a Marine veteran was able to get her GI bill benefits and free tuition through scholarships. Her living expenses were totally paid for.)

    There’s a huge difference between the military industrial complex and individual veterans. Most people understand this!

    1. There’s a huge difference between the military industrial complex and individual veterans. Most people understand this!

      I was coming here to say exactly this! I don’t want to minimize the distrust/dislike that LW might experience from some people, because I’m sure that it’s real and that I (as someone who has not been in the military) cannot comment on the prevalence or severity of that attitude, but I do want to reassure LW that there are many people who fault the system rather than the individuals involved in it.

    2. This! Another thing I think about a lot is how problematic it can be to focus on the individual choices of people with relatively little systemic power (especially people in shitty situations, which accounts for quite a lot of vets who enlisted right out of high school) over organized efforts to challenge the system–or criticizing the choices of people who actually have the power to change the way the system works. I mean, not that those individual choices don’t matter, but there are a lot of people who are not in the military who are contributing to U.S. imperialism as well, and I don’t think that effective activism should be about prioritizing individual ‘purity’, if that makes any sense.

      I went to a very poor rural high school, and something like a third of my class enlisted after graduation. Individual politics had almost no bearing on that choice; for most of these kids, it was survival. I don’t have many positive feelings about the U.S. military, but–especially as a person who was never in a position where I was forced to make that choice–I can’t criticize them for it.

    3. Yes. Speaking from my own perspective as a non-veteran leftist, one of the reasons I’m vehemently against the military-industrial complex is not *just* the harm it does to the residents of those countries where we fight (although that would be reason enough). It’s *also* because of the harm it does to its own rank and file; the way it chews up soldiers and spits out veterans who suffer without support. I’ve NEVER blamed the individual soldiers; they are doing what they have to. I blame the institutions and economic structures which put people — disproportionately non-white and/or poor people — into danger for the sake of the wealthy who want to capture more resources and create excuses to sell the destructive equipment they make. NONE of that is your fault! You’re one of the victims of the military, not one of its creators.

      That doesn’t mean you had no choices, nor that the ones you made were without moral relevance, but that’s your own concern and frankly, not my business to judge. We all do what we have to, and being put in a position where you had to do something that harmed people doesn’t make you a monster.

      You’re welcome in all circles where I travel, I can tell you that much, LW.

    4. There’s a huge difference between the military industrial complex and individual veterans. Most people understand this!

      As one of my friends said, blaming individual vets or soldiers for the problems with the entire military industrial complex is like blaming individual Walmart* workers for the actions of the entire company.

      *or any large corporation known to have not-entirely-awesome ethics or labor practices.

    5. Hell, I was about to be drafted in 1970 to be a Marine in Vietnam swamps (or deserts) and joined the USN, which sent me to Key West for 2 years and then in payment for that duty sent my (WW II era) ship to Pascagoula MIssissippi for a full rebuild. Lots of work. Discharged early as a CO.

      Now people who somehow learn of my veteran status want to say “Thank you so much for your service!” Really frustrating. Now I just say “You’re welcome.” which at least gets it over quickly.

      My brother’s two kids want to be in the military SO BAD… I know they don’t want to hear from me, and maybe possibly, it will work out for the one who is aimed at OCS now. I have never ran into anyone who gave me a hard time for being a vet, ever. And I do hang with a liberal left wing crowd.

  7. Commenting only to send you kudos, LW. You clearly have powerful contributions to bring to the movement.

  8. Hey! I’m a leftists vet! You have to be upfront about it and when they ask for your opinion, remind them that you worare your uniform not just for people who want to fly the American flag, but to defend the right of those who want to burn it. Then say, you are welcome! Drop the mic and walk away.

    1. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this approach. Many people, me included, have a pretty strong knee-jerk reaction to the “I did this to defend your freedom!” narrative, because it’s one the right likes to trot out to quash any criticism of the military at all. Similarly to the “Jesus died for your sins!!!”–I didn’t ask anyone to do that and I’m not going to be guilted into gratitude. Trying to manipulate my emotions is just going to make me LESS friendly towards a person.

      On the other hand, the LW being honest about where they are coming from–it’s not a choice they would make today, but it’s part of their history, and has given them even more reason to support the objectives and goals of the groups they’re looking to join–would make me feel a lot more understanding and welcoming towards them.

      1. While the approach may rub you the wrong way, this is part of the reason my liberal leaning Marine husband serves, because he fully believes people should have the freedom and the right to protest their government and hate it if they want to. I don’t see it as an attempt to manipulate you into gratitude of it’s the truth for the person who served.

          1. Sorry, Kelsi. Not you, hippiepoints. And shipls, I guess it might not work exactly for OP but I hope it might make them feel a little better about their military service and reassure them that not all veterans are angry Cheeto worshippers and hopefully the people they work with in the future will realize that.

          2. Wow, “the kelsi person”? I might be misreading this (because internet) but that came off to me as intentionally dismissive and rude.

            I have to admit, the approach you recommend would definitely not predispose me to think well of anyone who used it, particularly in such a categorical way as the “mic drop” part suggests. That is to say, Kelsi’s point is something to think about at least – not just dismiss with an “ok” as if it’s the most ridiculous thing ever said.

        1. Okay, but based on the letter it doesn’t seem to be the truth for the OP at all. hippiepoints’ advice might work for them (which is fine), but the OP seems to be coming from a different place entirely.

          1. Agreed. LW’s problem is she wants to be able to diffuse confrontations about her military service so it doesn’t become a thing that alienates her from her fellow leftist activists. Hippiepoint’s approach of “be abrasive and dismissive and tacitly demanding respect for your service by reminding them ~YOU FOUGHT FOR THEIR FREEDOM~” is not helpful or correct for this situation. LW wants to make friends, not one-up people in a debate. And she doesn’t seem super happy with being a vet in the first place, so encouraging her to flaunt her service seems… misguided.

        2. KR, your husband’s service is appreciated and necessary. I believe that the military does a lot of needed, useful defense of country and defense of allies and aid to others. And also that the military does some other, horrible stuff. I think there’s a big difference between what your husband is doing–articulating why he chooses to serve, which shows a great deal of character and imposes a high degree of personal risk–and shutting down dissent with the military service trump card. I hope your husband doesn’t get push back when he expresses his truth about why he has chosen a dangerous career that, in a very real way, protects others from the human costs of the comforts they enjoy.

          That said, there is *also* a very vocal subset of people who use their service as a reason that critics of military actions should stop speaking out. This subset tends to articulate a very similar sentiment–I risked my life for your freedoms–and then adds “and it is disrespectful to that sacrifice when you question whether I should have had to make it in the first place, so be quiet.”

          I think where Kelsi is coming from is that there is nothing wrong or incompatible with being interested in dismantling the military industrial complex and also having served in the military out of a desire to protect American ideals. However, most leftist groups (and it sounds like certainly the ones LW is interested in) are significantly more interested in preventing military overreach and harms to marginalized regions than they are in preserving American ideals through military action. Most leftist groups that are vocally criticizing current American military actions are also subject to a disproportionate number of responses in the form of “I risked my life for my freedom and you are disrespecting my service.”

          So, while, again, there is nothing wrong with the sentiment of self-sacrifice for freedom that a leftist veteran might express as a motivation for prior military service, if that veteran is looking for ways to show that they share an organization’s goal of de-escalating the U.S. military, it’s probably not the best opener. It doesn’t speak to the shared goals of the veteran and the organization–reducing harms caused by some military actions–and it may put many on edge, as it is the opening line of the argument used by the organization’s loudest and least constructive critics.

          It’s deeply unfair that a vocal, unreasonable, and (imo) ideologically fairly unAmerican subset of conservative veterans have co-opted the language of “freedom” and “service” to quash the very freedom of speech they purport to risk their lives for, but co-opt it they have. And if LW is looking to make it clear from the getgo that they are not part of that subset, that goal will probably be better served if LW chooses different language when introducing themselves and only fights to take back the co-opted language once they have the leftist allies they seek.

        3. You might not see it that way, but I’m trying to explain how regardless of how you see it, it can come off that way. It’s not a good way of smoothing the confrontation, which is what LW is seeking to do.

      2. I also think you will get backlash to this because, by and large, the military isn’t defending anyone’s freedom. The biggest threat that most Americans face from abroad is that of terrorism, and there’d be a lot less of that if the US didn’t have such a history of military interventionism.

        Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say this in leftist spaces if it is what you feel and believe; but you should be aware that it will start passionate discussions, not close them.

        1. This this this! Full disclosure: I’m Canadian, not American and this is largely theoretical for me. That said, I had the idea that the biggest threat to Americans’ collective freedom is not some foreign power who is actively planning to invade the US but domestic politicians and police officers who think it’s okay to terrorize people.

    2. Non-US woman here. My little non-US home city is a port often used by US naval ships, who make a significant spike in the population and flooded the town with young sailors on shore leave quite regularly back in my student days. US navy men would often make that speech about defending my freedoms as part of an argument as to why I should show gratitude and sleep with them. It always made me and my friends incandescently angry and if you want to get a foul mouthed diatribe about all the problems of the US army I think that’s the way to do it. I ended up stomping on one of those navy boys stupid hats once – and given the reputation US military had I felt relieved he didn’t bash me, because they shot up rape and assault figures massively every time they were in port. On the other hand, we had some lovely conversations with US servicemen who didn’t do that lecture – we realized most of them were just young people who needed a job or a way to get into Uni and tried to be hospitable as possible.
      TLDR – nobody likes being told to be grateful especially if they disagree with you. Don’t make that speech.

        1. Nevertheless, it’s still true that people dislike being told they should be grateful, especially in the smug “mic-dropping” manner you advocate. OP seems to be more interested in gaining people’s trust than in scoring rhetorical points, so how about we gear our advice that way?

          1. Your advice was to be honest in a confrontational way, and it’s the confrontational part lots of us are objecting to. This thing where you ignore the part we told you we’re objecting to and claim that the whole substance of your advice was “be honest” is pretty disingenuous.

          2. You’re not going to win here, Hippiepoints. What you said has been reiterated using other words with another agenda by people that think their opinion is really important, even more important than yours. Like defending someone’s right to burn the flag = defending our freedom and we’d better damn well be grateful to you. Been there. I appreciate how you took it all in and seemingly considered it. Yet you were still accused of being dismissive. Ya make a suggestion, ya set yourself up for roasting. Live and learn.

      1. + 1 This is not some unanswerable zinger to a leftist group of the kind that LW wants to join. It is setting yourself up for a counter-argument on a whole range of subjects, and coming across as a confrontational jerk who has not grasped any of the complexity of the issues. That counter-argument might come from someone being equally confrontational, or it might come from someone who is extremely well-informed on a whole range of subjects that aren’t going to be fun to argue against, up to and including dead children in Syria/Pakistan/Afghanistan. I agree that LW should be honest about her past, but she should be honest in the way that she is in her letter.

    3. Saying ‘you are welcome’ assumes that the person you are talking to is from a group that has never been the subject of US military violence.

      I’m half Iraqi but you wouldn’t know it to look at me, and this presumption that your actions would protect my freedom because you only see the white half of me is an incredibly shitty thing to put on me.

        1. this thing where you rules-lawyer everyone’s emotional reactions to the script you’re proposing the LW use is unpleasant and dismissive.

          1. like, you’ve said:

            You have to…remind them that you worare your uniform not just for people who want to fly the American flag, but to defend the right of those who want to burn it. Then say, you are welcome!

            that explicitly assumes that the speaker was acting in defence of the people they are talking to, and that those people should be grateful. no. you don’t know that.

          2. And unless hippiepoints is also going to be in every leftist space the OP goes into to also rules-lawyer everyone the OP speaks to, it’s just bad advice. “The U.S. military defends civic freedoms like freedom to dissent” is a liberal argument that will go over poorly with a lot of leftists; it won’t be limited to the five commenters here who have already clearly explained why they would take objection to it.

          3. but hippiepoints, even if they ask her for their opinion, ending with ‘you are welcome’ implies they should be grateful to her. you don’t know who they are, what has happened to them or their families. telling the LW to tell people to be grateful to her is terrible advice, I’m sorry.

          4. Reiterating the specific liberal talking point you advised her to reiterate in leftist spaces is bad advice.

            The one about the reason for her military service, which is not the reason that the OP actually gave for her military service.

    4. In addition to the problems others have pointed out with this approach: you may have INTENDED to be defending freedom, but even a fairly quick review of the history of the U.S. military’s adventures over the last fifty years strongly suggests that what you ACTUALLY were doing was nothing of the sort. For that reason, expecting people to be grateful is expecting them to share naiveté which, apparently, you no longer feel yourself.

    5. Strongly implying that people ought to thank you for something they never asked you to do by saying “you are welcome!” is called loan sharking or kind sharking and is a common tactic of manipulative and abusive people. You can find more detail at https://criminalreviews.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/a-captain-awkward-glossary/, search for “sharking” and you’ll find it right away.

      I would recommend your advice to the LW if and only if she wants to end confrontations by ensuring that the leftist she’s talking with never speaks to her again. If she wants to join a leftist organization and have constructive conversations on the other hand, then I don’t recommend being a jerk.

      And like I said downthread, there is no foreign power looking to invade and deprive Americans of their right to burn the flag. The people making it unsafe for Americans (especially Black Americans) to exercise their right to free speech are local politicians and police officers.

    6. “I want to interact with people, how do I discuss this thing I am embarrassed about?”
      “As soon as they ask you what you think, tell them they owe you, and walk away!”


  9. I am a socialist-leaning professor in a left-leaning department in a left-leaning community college, and I can tell you that in that pretty lefty space, I’ve never heard veterans spoken of with anything other than sympathy and respect. I’m sure veterans are sneered at and looked at with suspicion in some places, but not all of them. In my experience, most thoughtful lefty people are able to strongly critique the military while offering unwavering support for veterans. (Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, and Al Franken are a few excellent examples.) As an instructor, I am always happy to have veterans in my classes because they are always the smartest, hardest-working, most focused and mature students in the room. I say this first to encourage you in your college plans, but more importantly to let you know that while some lefty-types might look down their noses, not all of us do, and many will appreciate the experience, expertise, and perspective you bring. My suspicion is that the more working-class people and people of color you find in a space, the more people you’ll find with stories similar to yours, or whose loved ones have served, so you might consider seeking out spaces like that. Finally–and I know you might have mixed feelings about this–thank you for your service. Whatever your reasons for enlisting, it was a service, staying and serving honorably is a service, and speaking out about what you’ve learned will be your most important service of all.

      1. Cool comment, thanks. I forgot that there’s no overlap at all between liberals and leftists. It was silly to think that since the LW is concerned about how to be a veteran in leftist spaces, she might also be concerned about how to be a veteran in lefty spaces. LW, disregard, I guess. eben set me straight.

  10. My brother is a vet. He enlisted because he wanted to earn tuition money, travel the world, and be in a regimented environment so that he could some clarity about what to do with his life. His one reluctance was that he didn’t want to go to war. He enlisted in August. Then September 11th happened. September 11th happens to be his birthday. Two months later he was off to basic knowing he’d like be stationed in a war zone – just what he didn’t want!

    He stuck it out too and prefers to focus on the good that he did. His critics get to hear all about how he helped train locals in Q’atar and Iraq so they could have job skills. He helped provide protection to villagers as they rebuilt their bombed out communities. He was a cook at a food station that provided food to locals who would have had no food and water if the US military wouldn’t have been there. On his down time, he’d sit with local kids and teach them some English while they taught him some of their language. Pointed reminders that not all military personnel are gun-toting warmongers has worked for him. Plus, he can also get a little bit of an edge, if need be, and mention the four years of college the military paid for – and he got that direction he needed, going on to earn an MBA and become fully bi-lingual. He now lives abroad teaching English in China.

    LW, I’m sure there was good that you got out of your experience, too. Seek out the organizations that appreciate the perspective you bring. It’s easy to criticize the military when one has never left the comfort of their own living room. But you’ve been there, seen it, and done it. Keep seeking until you find an organization that appreciates the asset that you will be!

  11. I work in the Pacific NW at Dept of Defense. I work with a lot of retired military. I am probably as socialist as you can get on the scale of left.

    What I notice is a mix of two things at work here.

    A lot of conservative environments, like the military and DoD have folks in them that seem to remember back to the Vietnam Era when military people that left service were really brutalized by protesters, hiring officials, etc. (My own father couldn’t get a job after Vietnam because they literally refused to hire “baby killers” and told him that to his face.)

    I don’t feel like that is necessarily the same thing these days. In most of the activist spaces I have been in, folks are super clear that they support the men and women on the ground, and feel like soldiers are important, and make that distinction that they have issues with the military industrial complex, not the men and women that economically found the military as their solution. I’m not saying we don’t have a few nuts in there, but I feel like they are leftovers from a different age, sometimes.

    The biggest issue I think you will find in these spaces, is nobody really knows how it works to be in the military. How the Department of Defense is on the day to day. That’s what I find. After the initial eye brow raise, folks usually carry on. In some cases if you want to be in those spaces, your expertise as ex military will be considered a plus.

    The other side of this coin is how leftist areas are viewed by military personnel. I am a civilian working for the Dept. of Defense, but a good half of my coworkers are retired military, and I find on that side, some of them really do not understand that when someone criticizes policies, and the military industrial complex as a whole, that it’s not a criticism on them.

    Some of these men and women are so worried about being on college campuses (we do recruiting some times), or in “hippy town” when we go to super liberal places, that they kind of circle the wagons and don’t give it a real chance. When I am with some of these folks we can have two entirely different experiences, despite doing the same thing in the same place. I attribute this a lot to their anxiety at being in a “hippy college” and being super anxious they will be singled out.

    I guess I’m saying, just be open about your military experience. Be open to the new environment and new experiences. If someone has an issue, more often then not, they will self select to get out of your space.

    Congratulations on making it through, and getting out.

    1. “some of them really do not understand that when someone criticizes policies, and the [common feature] as a whole, that it’s not a criticism on them.”

      QFT. Sadly, this attitude is found on every side, about every issue. I believe that if we could figure out how to defuse this almost instinctive defensiveness, the human race would be much better off.

      1. I mean, sometimes there is an implication from some critics that “you should not have done this” (whatever this is, in a given context) and that is going to be personal. And then, if that implication is not there, why bring it up to me then?

        I experience it a lot more regarding feminist issues rather than military issues, but I admit that t tends to ring false personally when someone criticises my activities or beliefs some aspect of my identity, then turns around and says, “oh, well, i didn’t mean *you*. I just meant [xyz] generally.”

        1. Yep. Not a vet, but 5 years in (non-US) Army Reserves… “Soldiers are all brainwashed, all they can do is follow orders!” “Oh, I didn’t mean YOU!” If I had a nickel each time, I could retire, and from family members too! Thankfully, not immediate. Three of my four grandparents served in one way or another 1939-1945, and the fourth lived in occupied Belgium, so they understand, but yeah.

          LW, people who will reject you based on a background you repudiate, you don’t want in your life. They didn’t come out of the womb as perfect little leftists, although I doubt it would do you any good to remind them of this.

      1. Hi Dino – I attended Evergreen as the child of a career military family, and while there were plenty of people who had thoughts about my parents’ careers, it was based more on class than anything else. The assumption I came across most was that I was rich because I’d travelled around the world, even the east coast. When they learned that it was to follow my dad’s career there was often an expression of envy. If someone wanted to criticize my dad’s choices, I told them to save it for my dad since there was nothing I could do about it. Evergreen is a working-class school and people there were generally much more understanding of veteran/military issues than in some of the other leftie-liberal places I have been, where baby champagne socialists who cut holes in their designer clothes bought with daddy’s credit card used to lecture me about personal integrity. I found laughing at them the best way to handle that.

        LW – you owe nobody an explanation for your choices. At the start it was the right idea at the time, and even when it became the wrong idea you honored your commitment. That kind of integrity speaks for itself, and anyone who wishes to criticize that isn’t usually interested in getting off their high horse. Have a great time on civvy street building a wonderful new life for yourself.

      2. Evergreen actually has a very large veteran student population as well, at least nowadays – partially because it has a large nontraditional student population in general and partially because it specifically appeals to veterans who want to get as far away from the rigidity of service once they leave. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be a recruiter there, as being welcoming of veterans is very different from acceptance of recruiters, but it’s definitely not a bad school for veterans.

        1. This. Evergreen’s pretty chill about most things – including vets. They don’t think highly of recruiters, but a lot of that is because the Evergreen vets will tell you about what sort of things recruiters do.

  12. One of my biggest critiques of leftist spaces is the treatment of people who come from non-ideal backgrounds. As Goat Lady says, who better to discuss the intricacies of the military industrial complex than someone who has seen it firsthand? And if you are truly against the military, wouldn’t you want to talk to vets to find out why they joined and have them help reach out to those who might be considering enlisting? The selective ideological purity I’ve seen is really frustrating.

    1. I agree with this. *Some* people in leftist spaces don’t get that not everyone can make the ideal, ethical, do-right choice every time. Someone who is, for instance, from an affluent and loving family, with college paid for, parents taking the kids on overseas vacations, and family connections to help with employment, might not understand that people join the military to get out of bad family situations or pay for college or leave a dying small town.

      “You will find a way to be pure” is, in a way, the leftist version of “Bootstraps!”

      1. Other people say “there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism,” which is another way of saying no one’s hands are clean. I agree more with that and a lot of other leftists do as well.

        1. While I know that the thinking of a zero sum game on ethical living exists in some pockets on the left, I see it as more a culture of some groups rather than being so widespread. For the OP, student groups and other youth led spaces can be where this thinking is a little more prominent – but I haven’t found it truly ubiquitous.

          Nonprofit organizations often bring a more balanced view where people are committed to a certain cause, but also acknowledge lived realities around people’s budgets and family lives and different choices.

          And like most things, not all groups are the same and if one feels bad it doesn’t make someone a “bad lefty” to seek something more comfortable.

        2. Just based on my personal experience, leftists that I’ve met that are super invested in purity (especially in college) are way, way more interested in expounding on their ideology all damn day. They very rarely actually *do* anything, as doing things usually involves some kind of nuance and compromise. So steering clear of the kind of people that consider you forever unclean because of your military service may come with the bonus cookie of working with groups that are more effective at actually making change.

          1. This tends to be true. You can’t do anything at all without making some mistakes or stepping on someone’s toes. You just have to learn and do better next time. This is something people who actually accomplish a lot know, because they have done this too. You can’t hold on to perfect clean purity unless you do nothing and touch nothing. You *can* do your best to live by your principles as you learn and clarify who you want to be. Find these people, because they are getting shit done.

          2. Exactly. In a few human rights organizations I’ve worked out there have been moments of staff discord around organization kitchens and omnivore/vegetarian/vegan food. Calls will be made on occasion for having a vegetarian only kitchen or no meat in the microwave. But for an organization committed to do “something”, disagreements about adjacent issues or larger picture issues are inevitable.

            Successful groups can work through that thinking and not get stuck in chasing any kind of perfect philosophy.

          3. Ex-Christian right member here. The leftist ideological squabbling over ethical consumption sounds like the Christian Right’s emphasis on sin and sexual purity. Yuck.

          4. this. a lot. When this happens to me – or rather, when I experience some blah blah blah as this happening to me – I think: (1) they are probably trying to convince themselves of something, rather than trying to convince *me* of something; (2) folks in the military get sunshine blown up their butts more often than most others in this country, and so perhaps it’s okay (well, not *okay,* but in perspective) for us to suck up an insult or three while other people, say, are GETTING SHOT BY COPS; (3) those interesting in an actual conversation beyond the polemicizing will be interested in picking your brain to learn things – and hopefully things that point towards solutions. The rest – I *try* to think of it as emotional venting, and deal with the FEELINGSBOMB like you would any other. Back away slowly.

            I deal with the triple whammy of LeftyAwful. I (1) went to West Point; (2) became a CORPORATE LAWYER; and (3) am white with a privileged middle class upbringing. When I starting feeling harassed, and when people would go off about Wall Street and my complicity, I’d join along with them, but offer some detail about “how AWFUL it all is” that they didn’t know before but I do because of my LeftyAwful. Like: “did you know that union pension funds are some of the biggest institutional investors propping up wall street sharks?” followed up by “this would have never happened to me if we had free secondary education” and “late capitalism makes us complicit in our own exploitation.”

            This never worked — especially while I was still lawyering.

          5. This has also been my experience.

            (IME, there’s often a lot of class privilege in play there as well)

        3. See, I know that this is supposed to be encouraging to people, but every time I read a statement along the lines of, “there is no ethical way to be a human being,” I mentally hear, “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” The latter has the subtext of, “So, you’re going to hell unless you do what we say.”

          So, personally, it was really important to stop judging myself (and others) so harshly, which meant letting go of the idea that there’s no way to be a good (ethical) person. I just can’t believe that. I don’t want to be in a constant state of shame, seeking forgiveness, regardless of whether the ideology is religious or political.

          So I just…don’t. Instead, I believe that you can be a good person pretty easily, or at least straight-forwardly. Most people can. Treat people well. Work to make the world better in the ways that call to you. Go easy on yourself and other people. Learn from your mistakes. Hone your own conscience, because that’s who you face, in the end.

          This is probably why I avoid leftist spaces even though I agree with a lot of their goals. I don’t want to be judged as falling short because of why I buy or what media I read or whatever, and the fact that everyone is being judged makes it worse for me, not better. I admire the LW for wanting to pursue organized political activism when she knows she’ll face judgement because she believes it will improve the world. It’s brave, and I don’t think it’s a choice I’m ever going to make myself.

          1. I don’t think that means ‘ethics are impossible under late capitalism’ so much as ‘individual consumption should not be the metric we use to judge individual activism, because the nature of how western society is set up makes it difficult if not impossible to only consume in a way that leftists would consider ‘ethical’, and activist energy would be better spent dismantling the systems that make that true’.

            In short, living in an imperfect society means that everybody makes compromises.

          2. Yeah, I’m not hearing “there’s no way to be a good person”, but rather “there’s no way to be a *perfect* person”. It might seems like splitting hairs but to me, at least, the distinction matters. If “good” is possible, the decisions I make matter and they should be at least somewhat thought out. But since purity is not achievable, it’s not helpful for me to be hypercritical of myself or others. YMMV

          3. Yeah, the focus of this statement isn’t on “why even try?”, it’s on “don’t get suckered into losing sight of the big picture: you can do better or worse within the rules of capitalism, but if we really want an ethical world, we have to focus our energy on changing the rules, not on finding the right way to follow them”

            It’s also very positive for people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t do all the things that are currently popular “ethical alternatives” – like veganism, local food production, using public transport – because it highlights that those things are secondary to actually changing the context in which society operates, which *is* something that everyone can contribute to in some way.

        1. GreyJoyGardens hit the nail on the head. Leftists should recognize that under the present capitalist system, we sometimes have to sell out our values in order to earn wages and survive. We have all had to work jobs that don’t jive with our ideologies, especially when the other option is staying in an abusive situation and/or starving homelessness.

          also goat lady I wanna follow your DSA comradely self on twitter!

    2. Katelyn, quite so! I’ve never been in the LW’s situation, but I can say I’m more interested in the perspective of someone who says “I used to do/think/be X, but what I’ve learned and experienced has caused me to rethink” than someone who just condemns from outside.

  13. I am a giant flaming liberal who is not happy about the way America has been using its military. But I believe that anger about how our military is used needs to be directed at the people making the policy decisions, not the people getting shot at. It is a GOOD THING that people are willing to lay down their lives for our constitution. The despicable people are the ones that take that dedication and use it for less than noble ends.

    1. Very much this. The idea of people blaming soldiers for the immorality of our politicians is mind boggling to me.

      1. Well, yes and no.

        We no longer live in an era where there is a draft. Joining the military is an action which you undertake of your own volition. If you do even a little research, you will find out pretty quickly that joining the American military… uh… to put it politely, offers lots of possibilities to do things that a lot of people find morally repugnant — and, of course, means willingly making yourself a tool of said immoral politicians. It’s not like it’s all that difficult to find out about recent history like Abu Ghraib, either. If you join the military, at the very least you are signing up to *potentially* have to kill people, to say nothing of more abstract problematic tasks.

        That being said, if the choice is “join the military or starve to death”, or “join the military or be slowly driven insane by abusive parents”, then there really isn’t a *good* choice available, and it really isn’t fair to blame somebody when they do what is necessary for their own survival. You can’t expect everyone to be a martyr.

  14. One of my favorite college friends made an amazing career in the air force and as much as I know the military industrial complex is fucked up all over, having him in command makes me feel like there are some people in charge of scary shit who care about other human being involved.

  15. Listening to a podcast, the guest made a good point about Citizenship & Duty to Country. As a Citizen we have a claim on Society to help us out, but we also have a Duty to give back to that system for others. He mentions that not long ago it was an electrifying moment for JFK to say “ask not what your country can do for you…”

    Your path happened to be military service, but hopefully though who would be so rude to criticize you to your face (how gauche) would be doing more community service/examining their duties to others.

  16. A few things:

    1) Our problems are not with the individual soldiers, sailors, air force personnel or marines, our problem is with the civilian leadership who sends them into battle for profit and then abandons them when they return. Anyone who gives you shit for your service is a child who has no idea what life is like for an E-3, and why people choose that life.

    2) You should not be ashamed of your service. You did a job, I assume you did it well, and all work has dignity. No, you weren’t fighting Nazis (we do that on the streets now), but you also aren’t Doctor Strangelove.

    3) Come the revolution, your military service will be far more valuable than my in depth knowledge of 19th century feminist action, so welcome to the club, fellow Socialist Riff-Raff.

    1. Thanks, you expressed this better than I could.

      LW: Thank You For Your Service. You honored your commitment to serve and you could have figured out a way to get out of it. Commitment and Honor are in short supply. Any group you join needs to recognize and appreciate that.

  17. I think Goat Lady is spot on. I too would be glad to hear your inside perspective. I think people who write you off for your service without knowing you are not your people. Best of luck finding your people, getting an education, and finding your best future!

  18. I think it’s also really important to remember that folx in marginalized communities are more likely to join the military because of a lack of other options. I know so many queer and trans people who are veterans (and that’s just an example of a community I belong to). I have also known folks who joined for “three hots and a cot” or to escape a toxic upbringing like yours.
    If we want to make sure that, for instance, poor people and people of color are included in our communities, then we need to remember that they may have been in the system in ways that may feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar to some folks with more privilege, such as having been to prison, having served in the military, having been on welfare, etc, etc. The more agency you have, the more resources and privilege you have, the more ways you have of avoiding those situations.
    If the community you are talking to has a problem with your background, they have a problem with the backgrounds of a lot of people they are claiming to want to help. This is not a problem just for you.

    1. The military is the largest socialist program in the country. I’d much rather we directed its efforts exclusively to disaster relief and the very rare cases of actual national defense, and we should still recognize the degree to which it provides for thousands of people who have no other options or who truly wish to possibly sacrifice themselves for the people of this country, and perhaps others. We’ve certainly pursued imperial militarism way too much, and it’s also the case that fighting Nazis, for example, was a good thing to do. I think we’d be better off with more Leftists enlisting and then refusing illegal or immoral commands and exposing corruption and war crimes. I’m not a pacifist Ledtist – I think we should make the military operate in service of justice and the well-being of humans generally rather than opposing its existence.

  19. I’m sorry you have encountered leftists who are assholes. Thank you for your service.

  20. LW, the financial incentives for so many Americans to join the military mean, at least to me as a VERY left leftist from the rural midwest, I would never assume someone signed up because they were rah rah about war or any other political thing. It’s also fine to use a little truth to make people who would scrutinize you in this way feel bad and awkward: “I couldn’t go to college otherwise” or “I needed a way out of my town” are fair things that should make anyone just shut up. You made it through a tough commitment in a climate you realized was not right for you — that’s a HUGE accomplishment that will serve you well in the long run. Please don’t let idealogues influence how you feel about what you chose for yourself.

    1. honestly I’m surprised by people offhandedly calling military service a “non-ideal background” and stuff for being a leftist. Even saying that as a reassurance is an implicit endorsement of that bewilderingly narrow thinking.

        1. Oh shit, I hadn’t looked at it from that perspective but I think you’re right. It’s like these people are saying military members are counter-revolutionary, and…nooope.

      1. The bewilderingly narrow thinking has seemed into a *lot* of social-justicey spaces– I know someone who’s exactly the sort of leftist the LW is worried about meeting (someone who’s made it plain she thinks I cannot possibly belong to the marginalized groups I belong to because no true member of such groups would disagree with the opinions she’s espousing), and I know people who I wouldn’t have thought of as that kind of leftist when I knew them in college but who seem to be getting more that way now except they don’t occupy that kind of leftist space; they occupy the more mainstream ones. It seems to be leaking out of the super-radical spaces and into the ones that had been more functional.

          1. Excellent article. Fascinating article. I don’t dare post it on Facebook because the likely reaction would be along the lines of “This article is white supremacy.” (I live in a bubble of people in that intellectual-intersectional-feminism-and-critical-race-theory thing– to such a degree that even though I’m aware it’s a bubble I still hadn’t consciously absorbed that the Wikipedia definition he gives is a small-subculture definition.)

        1. Yes, it sounds like it’s a function of Competitive Wokeness that is actually more about status-seeking rather than actually making a difference.

    2. Right? Anyone at this point who doesn’t realize that there are people who join the military for reasons OTHER than patriotism have not been listening. (And I read that and realize it sounds like I’m saying if you join the military because you needed a job that means you aren’t a patriot, and that is not at all what I’m saying, but I hope people know what I mean.)

    3. Yeah I’m also in the Midwest and I feel like “I joined because then I could pay for college” or “I joined so I could get the hell out of [town]” or “I joined because I had no idea what else to do after high school” are incredibly common narratives for people on all sides of the political spectrum. It may be a regional thing? Not sure but I can’t imagine automatically assuming (without further evidence) that someone had been in the military because they 100% agreed with the institution as a whole.

      1. I know many, many military veterans and not a single one of the says they joined for patriotic reasons–only pragmatic ones (needed a job, wanted to go to college, wanted to travel, etc.) I’m not saying that no one ever does, but I would never assume it of anyone who said they’d served.

    4. I even live and went to college on the west coast of Canada and the Navy was plan B for me if I couldn’t get a good job out of college. I had loans to pay off (not saying I wasn’t lucky to be able to get those loans in the first place, just that I knew I was going to have to pay that money back), and the one career fair we had at my college made me a little worried. The only booth where people seemed interested in the students was the Navy booth, everyone else seemed to want us just to take a pamphlet and get out of their sight.

  21. All the commenters have made excellent points, so I’ll just add my thanks and emphasize that any space or organization who wouldn’t recognize a gold mine in a leftist veteran is really missing several clues. I wish you all the best in finding the right fit for your skills and contributions.

    1. Yep, where I live, many of our most effective organizers are veterans. They know why they’re doing the work, they’re in it for the right reasons, they’re there to serve and not for an ego trip, they know how to get things done, and they can connect with segments of the community that many of us can’t connect with nearly as effectively. We value the veterans in our leftist organizations very highly here.

  22. Just to throw my perspective into the ring, I am a pacifist, raised Mennonite, my grandpa was a card-carrying Conscientious Objector who served in the CPS (he’s even on their wikipedia page!). I’m also pretty liberal/left leaning.

    There are some hardline churches who would tell you you’re not welcome, but I for one think your service makes you more valuable to fight against the military-industrial complex. While I don’t support the military, or its actions, people are people and everyone’s story and experience is valuable, and it’s like … we can’t fully comprehend or criticize something we don’t know from the inside. Your experience is valuable to that.

  23. LW, I know so many vets and active servicemembers who work for social justice! Because of my particular location, most of the ones I know are chaplains or chaplains in training (in the military as well as in civilian hospitals and prisons). These are not necessarily “leftist” pursuits in the sense that Goat Lady makes the distinction between leftist and liberal, but my point is that there are a TON of ways for you to bring your military experience to the table when you’re trying to help dismantle some of the harm that can be caused by militaries and global capitalism. Whether or not you need to apologize for your service I think is up to you–any organization that wants you to go about in sackcloth and ashes can lose you to one that appreciates your experience and perspective for what they are.

  24. Since it’s always worth quoting Lois McMaster Bujold…

    “Experience suggests it doesn’t matter so much how you got here, as what you after you arrive.”

    1. Gah. “Experience suggests it doesn’t matter so much how you got here, as what you do after you arrive.”

      Edited to correct omission.

  25. Seconding the idea of Veterans for Peace. Also, t his is not quite what you are asking but might be helpful. Quaker House in Fayetteville, NC, and at http://www.quakerhouse.org has deep resources for military people, whether active soldiers or veterans. One of their slogans is “YES to the soldiers/NO to the wars!” And this is their overall mission statement: “Quaker House is a manifestation of the Friends’ Peace Testimony. Based in Fayetteville, NC, home of Ft. Bragg, Quaker House provides counseling and support to service members who are questioning their role in the military; educates them, their families, and the public about military issues; and advocates for a more peaceful world.”

  26. LW, speaking as a fellow vet and leftist, my experience in a civilian college was that 1) some people expected me to be really conservative; 2) they were a little baffled when I wasn’t; but 3) ultimately they were pretty supportive and interested in my experiences.

    I did once get a job because the people who hired me thought I must have quit the military because I became a pacifist, which was not true. I also once did not get a job (working on death row cases) after the interviewer asked me why I was interested in death penalty postconviction work, which could save lives, when I had been in the military and the purpose of the military was to kill people. He then made a comment about me “not taking a joke” because I didn’t laugh. I felt a little better when I talked to the other interviewees and found out he was an asshole to them too. (PS–He also told me that I was the best qualified person for the job. I’m not kidding.)

  27. LW, I had interpreted your reference to “left-leaning people and organizations” slightly differently (and probably incorrectly) from others. I thought you meant professors and political student organizations wherever it is you’re going to study biology. So I will address that, with the understanding that I’ve probably missed the mark, though I hope my two cents can help too. *sheepish face*

    So, you’re going to college, and you may be worried that your professors, who as a group do tend to be more left-leaning, will treat you differently because of your veteran status, especially humanities professors. However, in my experience (as a student and TA, not a vet), professors tend to be very outwardly non-judgmental of their students. Some college teachers are themselves military veterans who embody a wide range of opinions about their own past service, while other non-veteran teachers will just be happy to have a bright, thoughtful student in their classes. If any professor treats you poorly due to your veteran status, then that professor has not understood the idea of intellectual safe spaces very well at all and does not deserve to have you as a student.

  28. Asset. That’s a really important word.

    Differentiate between soldiers and militaries. Soldiers are humans who have entire universes of experiences and connections. Some have gross reasons for serving, but most do the best they can with what they have– often for all kinds of good reasons. Scholarships, job training, supporting what they believe in… These are valuable pursuits. Reasonable people will recognize this.

    Please don’t be embarrassed of the hard work you have done.

    I hate it that soldiers and veterans face discrimination because of their service. It’s wrong and unreasonable.

    Do you have any left-leaning fellow service members? Anyone even remotely sympathetic? I have to believe that you are in contact with other people who believe what you do for the same compassionate, informed, and measured reasons that you do.

    I wish you welcoming arms.

  29. I came here to say ‘try DSA!’ & I’m happy to see Goat Lady beat me to it. We’re generally very friendly, have chapters all over the country (community ones everywhere from big cities to rural areas & YDSA (young democratic socialists..you get it) campus chapters at colleges & high schools.

    I didn’t have much experience organizing with veterans before, and I’ve been super impressed with how the VWG has taken the lead on offering a really nuanced, insightful view of how US militarism exploits the needs of poor people here in order to do its dirty work abroad.

  30. I tried to comment earlier so please feel free to delete if this is an near duplicate.
    I think people tend to forget/ignore/minimize that the system makes it a lot harder for people in marginalized communities to pursue the kind of path that is usually approved in any kind of purist circles. I know a number of queer and trans people who are veterans, many who joined to get out of bad situations. There are also a lot of people of color and poor people who wind up with “system” backgrounds such as having been on welfare, in the military, or in jail.
    If this is a problem you have with leftist groups, there are a lot of other people having the same problem, and the people in those groups are failing to center the marginalized communities they claim to be serving. Tell them their analysis needs work.

  31. I don’t know if this helps, but my perspective on the military is a complicated one. The upshot is that my attitude toward specific current and former servicepersons really depends on their own attitudes.

    I’ve found the development of the “thank you for your service” culture deeply troubling, because it’s all about the surface and not examining what’s really going on. And I’ve run into a whole lot of servicepeople who think that being in the military means they’re owed thanks by everyone and that they should somehow be treated as better than everyone, which to my mind is an utter perversion of the ideals of honorable service. So, obviously, don’t go there.

    And, obviously, don’t sugarcoat the ugly realities about the dysfunctions of the military. They are real, they are grim, they are shameful.

    Those who do their best to serve with integrity tend to get my respect, even if I don’t agree with what they are doing. I commented on another post that academia in the US and some other countries has come to exemplify a sick system, and that I get what it means to be caught in a sick system and have to extricate oneself. Honorable people in the military often find themselves in a similar position. Those who choose integrity over bowing to the sick system definitely have my respect.

    You seized on the best way out of an abusive life that you had. I respect the path you chose — it was based on hard work. It sounds like you then came to understand that you were in a sick/dysfunctional system and extricated yourself and oriented your life anew. I have huge respect for that. I think that you might want to be careful about people who don’t have some modicum of respect for your having fought your way out of first one bad situation, then another that you found to be bad. Those are honorable achievements.

  32. I want to echo what Goat Lady said about trying different groups to find the right one. There is a culture of ideological purity in some groups, but that often correlates to the younger crowd. People in their 30’s and 40’s will probably have parents or other relatives who served in Vietnam and maybe came out of the military more leftist than they went in.

    Also, in general, people who are 30+ will understand that you are not the same person in your late teens that you are even a few years later. If you are lucky you will find some thoughtful 20-somethings that understand this as well.

  33. When I was really active in the pagan/Wiccan community, one of the most common backgrounds for incoming people was “recovering Catholic”. (I used to predict that this would eventually be topped by “recovering evangelist.)

    I think you could call yourself “recovering military”.

    Admittedly, most of the kind of ideological zealots who would give you this biggest rations of excrement won’t have anything resembling a sense of humour, so this won’t help with them — but I don’t think anything would. It might help with the less zealotic. (Yes, that’s a word.)

    Thank you for your past service, and thank you even more for your future service! And good on you for getting yourself into a less awful place. May the next one be better still!

  34. my father protested the vietnam war, then got drafted and fought in it, then came back and protested some more. his military service gave him opportunities he never would have had otherwise. you did the best you could with what you had, which is all anybody can ask of you, and you made it! i hope you can find some chill vets to hang out with, as well as chill non-vets who are capable of making the distinction between the military-industrial complex and the people it uses. (if you want me to get you in touch with my dad, as one of said chill vets and an awesome networker, my name should link to my public twitter!)

  35. I don’t judge people who have served in the military – I know everyone has their reasons and it’s not always to support the military industrial complex and kill brown people. That said, I feel awkward around veterans. I’ve been told if you don’t support the war then you don’t respect the troops. I’ve been told that all veterans are The Best People, they’re heroes, deserving of ten times the respect of any civilian, and if you disrespect a veteran, you’re a terrible person and MAYBE YOU SHOULD GO TO WAR AND SEE WHAT IT’S LIKE, THEN YOU’LL UNDERSTAND WHY HE’S IMPORTANT AND YOU’RE SCUM*. But I’ve never fully understood what respect is, and I don’t always know an individual’s definition of respect. If I’m interacting with a veteran, how can I be sure that I am giving them ALL the respect and not doing anything that could remotely be interpreted as disrespectful? So it’s sometimes a relief when a veteran assures me I don’t have to act in any special way around them, that they did what they had to do but they don’t expect hero worship for that.

    The “you need to respect veterans” rhetoric came about after people spat on Vietnam vets and called them baby killers. But now, you see some army wives screaming at everyone MY HUSBAND IS A HERO AND IF YOU DON’T RESPECT HIM I WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE HELL!* I see “respect for veterans” used to manipulate people on certain political issues – even things like healthcare, education, and immigration.

    *or maybe I’m just a magnet for crazy, unreasonable people.

    1. Anyone who demands respect in the form of worship or subservience is a jerk. Anyone who denies respect in the form of treating others as a human being is a monster. People who demand respect (worship) in exchange for respect (decency) are self important delusionals regardless of why they believe that.

      I think there is a fear among those who have not served that vets will behave in that way. Once people realize that you aren’t a jerk I hope they’ll get over their own issues.

    2. My brother is in the Army.

      ” deserving of ten times the respect of any civilian, ”

      He said to me, when I told him I was nervous about getting in trouble for being on an Army post, “you outrank us. This is pounded into our heads. We work for YOU.”

      i fear that some of that is dying out, as the populace at large gets that “veteran worship” thing going on.

    3. My main thoughts here are 1) using crazy as a pejorative like that sucks, please don’t do that and 2) these are all really common attitudes in right wing areas/social groups. You see them a lot less/in milder versions among liberals/centrists, and not at all on the left. Recognizing that your service perpetuated several global evils generally stops you from demanding worship because of it.

      1. Also it is strange how some vets, including someone in the comments, leave no space between aims and tactics – even optimistically supposing that X war was for freeedom (as opposed to less noble interests), it could still have had awful tactics, including hurting civilians, that are worthy of criticizing without it meaning that the critic haaaates freedom. As long as a right-wing vet wants me to “admit” that all civilian-killing is always noble because freedom, and disagreement is disrespect… Then I will definitely disrespect him. (And if a pro-lifer frames contraceptives as babykillers, then I am pro-babykilling.) I guess, LW, that people will be afraid of expectations of respect-as-total-lack-of-criticism like this, so clarifying that you do not have them could be useful, even if in a more ideal world they could just guess it.

    4. I used to be uncomfortable around vets for this reason as well, until some of my best friends became vets and some of my most articulate colleagues as well.

      The people screaming at you to RESPECT VETS OR ELSE are unreasonable people, and you should treat them as unreasonable people. But the general makeup of veterans is like the general makeup of everyone: most of them are reasonable people, and as long as you treat them kindly, politely, and, you know, like normal people, they will not feel disrespected.

      Take the (incredibly vexing) flag controversy right now. Yes, there are absolutely veterans who think people should be required to stand for the flag, just like there are civilians who think that. That’s not the vast majority. The vast majority either are fine with not standing as a mode of expression, or disapprove of that particular mode of speech–perhaps even because they have a complicated relationship with the flag due to their service and think you don’t understand that complicated relationship (and you don’t!)–but don’t feel attacked by it. Veterans are just people who chose a really hard job, usually with very good intentions and often with a different outcome than they expected. Like most people, they don’t like it when you condemn them by virtue of their identity, but also like most people, they don’t assume that anyone who critiques certain actions of organizations they are associated with is making a personal attack.

      In short, treat veterans like people. They largely deserve deference when speaking in their areas of expertise, such as how it feels/works to be in [whatever situation they were in], just as anyone else with actual knowledge of a subject deserves subject matter deference. Beyond that, veterans don’t want or need any more deference than anyone else.

      The way you may ACTUALLY be disrespecting veterans is by judging them by their worst representatives and deciding not to engage with the group as a whole because of your own (conscious or unconscious) biases and fears. I encourage you to interrogate those fears and biases so you can learn to treat each veteran as an individual, rather than as an extension of the stereotype you describe. Just as most Muslims are not terrorists, most feminists don’t hate men, and most Catholics aren’t child molesters, most veterans don’t think they’re any better than other human beings.

      You sound like a really nice person, and I’m not trying to criticize you, but I do hope that you move past feeling uncomfortable with all vets, as you’re doing yourself (and them) a disservice.

      (Of course I’m not suggesting that veterans are as a class treated worse than Muslims, but treating all veterans as holier than thou patriots until proven otherwise is a manifestation of the same impulse to generalize all unknown individuals from the worst similar known individual)

  36. I find it chilling to think that somehow military service is viewed an completely antithetical to a left-leaning point of view!

    Or worse, that serving our country in the military is assumed to automatically make a person a conservative!

    Please, my fellow Americans, do NOT let this become the definition, that “military service” must always equal “right-wing, conservative point of view.”

    1. I appreciate this particular perspective – one thing I’ve told the occasional critic is “wouldn’t you rather have people like me in there than the types you’re worried about? Maybe if there were more of us, things w/could change.”
      This is important: Our government and our military and our police are not owned by the right or the conservatives though it sometimes seems like they are. They do not own the American flag or label of patriot or the label of “American” though they have done their best to co-opt them. *It is our/your government and military too* and we have every obligation to keep it from drifting away from us. This is not to criticize those who don’t or can’t or cast blame of any type anywhere. But as has been brutally brought home to us this year, votes only go so far. Working within is equally as important as working without.

      I’ve served in the military, I’ve been a government civilian, and I now work for the government and military as a contractor. I’ve done this my entire professional life after I was derailed from my intended direction by 9/11. In every one of those capacities I have done and am doing my part to make the system what it should be.
      Do not regret your path. Do not minimize it. Left leaning veterans, reserves and active duty are out there. Find us or help us find you.

      Semper Paratus

    2. This attitude flummoxes me as well. I think there probably are a few ideologies that being on active military service/supporting active military service probably is incompatible with (specifically, I’m thinking of some strict pacifist viewpoints, many religious, that sees any action that in any small way enables the killing of another human as immoral. The same type of extremism that pro-life extremists say prohibits them from even filing an exemption form w/r/t the contraception mandate). But leftist philosophy generally isn’t this extreme.

      But even to the extent it is… Refusing all veterans for their *past service* suggests that people can’t truly change their minds to agree with those leftists’ extreme views. And if that’s the case, why bother participating in democracy? If you really believe that people with wrong views can’t ever fully embrace your cause, and your cause is not already the majority policy, WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU THINK YOUR ADVOCACY WILL ACCOMPLISH IF IT’S NOT CHANGED HEARTS AND MINDS?

      1. There are definitely leftist ideologies that disagree with the fundamental existence of the military. Anarcho-communism, for example. But there are right wing ideologies that do as well, or at least the existence of *state* militaries. (They’re usually okay with mercenaries.) Short answer, it’s not so much what you support as why you support it.
        But yeah, the attitude of leftists should ideally be “now that you’re here” rather than “where were you before?!”, because that’s kind of the thing about progressivism, we have to, you know…change stuff.

  37. also–check out Vassar College. They are actively recruiting and supporting veterans.

    1. I know nothing about Vassar except that one of my very favorite teachers works there, but I can’t not second the recommendation. I mean, I’m sure you’re not going to college for dance, LW, but if you ever have a chance to take his classes or talk to him, Steve Rooks in the dance department is a fantastic teacher and person.

  38. Dear LW, thank you for your service. I hope you found something of value in your enlistment despite your reasons for joining.

    I’m a progressive centrist, some of my family are prominent scientists, and some of my family are active duty or Army veterans. A friend of mine served in the Gulf. My cousin also enlisted to escape an abusive parent. So, I have no problem at all with military service, and neither does any scientist I know (though obviously I can’t speak for everyone. Regionalism will affect this; you may encounter more friction in the Pacific Northwest than on the East Coast).

    I would never tell you how to think or feel or what to say. I can say there are three common “veterans’ tropes” shared in my social circle that offended or hurt me, which are:

    1. posting memes about how military service is the only real service and veterans are the only real Americans (I saw this a lot in response to the Women’s March on Washington this January, which I attended *with* my veteran family members)

    2. beginning every discussion of gun control with the default assumption that all liberals want to ban guns

    3. responding to any discussion of housing or taking in immigrants / refugees with the argument that NO PENNY SHALL BE SPENT ON ON IMMIGRANTS UNTIL EVERY VETERAN IS HOUSED AND FED*

    I don’t know if these are hot-button topics for everyone, but those are honestly the only topics that would ever make me feel uncomfortable to hear from someone in a work or university setting. Anything else I would consider a valuable perspective.

    I’m afraid you may encounter some strident younger voices who hold misconceptions about veterans or share some hurtful assumptions with you (as the three assumptions above have hurt me at various times). There’s a lot to admire in angry young leftist passion, but as with any angry young voice, some of their viewpoints haven’t been reality-tested yet. However, I wouldn’t characterize science or universities as a whole as leftist – not by a long shot – so I hope that your experience will be much more mainstream than you worry will be the case.

    *because liberals want veterans housed and fed AND given sufficient medical care TOO, and the refugee crisis has nothing to do with Congress refusing to sufficiently fund veteran health / mental care and housing vouchers.

    1. “Bad veterans tropes that hurt my feelings and are spewed by the right wing” are the opposite of helpful here, especially when you will frequently find that people posting the first and third aren’t veterans themselves, and the second is a broad assumption among the far right. I realize you identified yourself as a centrist, but none of these are leftist philosophy.

      What were you hoping to accomplish by explaining about “right wing rhetoric around veterans that makes me feel bad” in a chiding tone to a leftist veteran?

      1. Goat lady and LW, I am sincerely horrified that I came across as chiding. Maybe I didn’t understand what was being asked? I thought LW was asking how she was going to be perceived as a veteran and leftist spaces. I’m in the car dictating on my phone, so I can’t be Cove here in. Could you please delete this comment thread entirely? If I can’t be helpful, I don’t want to hurt anyone.

        1. Also not the LW, and fwiw I didn’t find that this comment was chiding at all–the majority of the comment I read as supporting push back against the stereotype of veterans as a universally conservative demographic. My read was that the commenter’s goal was to reassure the LW that most liberals have problems with the way veterans are used as a conservative talking point, not with veterans themselves, by way of citing some specific examples of exploitative uses that the commenter has a problem with. I think the commenter’s point is helpful, to the extent that read is correct. LW is worried that leftists don’t like veterans. Commenter is reassuring LW that center liberals, at least, have no problem with veterans but are completely disgusted with the rhetoric that exploits them. And that to the extent that disgust reads as dislike of actual veterans, the commenter wants to remedy that.

        2. I didn’t see anything “chiding” in your response. I don’t know what Goat Lady is talking about, TBH, because you were quite clear that these are things that LW *might* face, not things you personally believe. No need to apologize.

        3. You seem to have gotten the question right, but I’m not seeing how your answer relates to it. Since the question was about crappy behavior the OP might face in left-wing spaces from crappy left-wingers, bringing up right-wing talking points is not on topic and doesn’t add anything to the conversation except to rhetorically conflate right-wing discourse with left-wing discourse. This conflation is a) a thing centrist discourse is infamous for, especially in media, and b) very high up there in guaranteed ways to instantly anger a leftist. Left discourse has its own strands of crappiness, which are usually distinct from right-wing ones.

          In addition, as a leftist, “Universities aren’t as left-wing as you think they are” isn’t a nice comforting statement; it’s a warning, and having it framed as “Don’t worry, it won’t be all full of those people” when I *am* “those people” (i.e., a leftist and not a centrist) is kind of insulting. This goes double for those of us who have found ourselves getting more radical as we get older.

    2. This totally wasn’t the point of your comment, but just wanted to say that with the Pacific NW it depends on where you go. Thanks to JBLM (between Tacoma and Olympia for those not familiar with the area), vets and active duty military are welcome in that part of WA and it can be a good place to find moderate vet communities. Rain, evergreens, welcome for veterans…what more could you want in a home?

      1. Yeah, gonna agree that the PNW is a good place to be if you want to be a liberal vet. Large military presence but also very liberal and a “Well I’m not X but it’s alright if you are” attitude towards most everything.

  39. LW, I have a friend who is a vet and very socially liberal. We’ve frequently talked about his time in the army. He also joined to escape a difficult life, and I get the feeling he really valued his time in the army. He talks fondly of his brothers and sisters in arms, but he is very critical of leadership and the military as an institution.

    He doesn’t hesitate to discuss all the negatives of military, and all the issues he has with our government and what the military is doing (and he has many issues). He also doesn’t shy away from talking about how serving affected him personally, and all the good things it brought him.

    I never served, and have no idea what it’s like to be in either of your shoes, but I don’t think being a vet in liberal places will be as big of a problem as it might seem.

    Oh, I also just remembered something a professor once told the class. He had a student who was a staunch Democrat, but also very determined to join the military. The professor asked the student why he wanted to join the military, when all his personal and political beliefs went against the norm in that world. The student said that’s exactly why he wanted to join. If he didn’t, there would be even fewer liberals adding their voice and affecting change, and an organization as big as the military can really only change from within.

    1. This always confuses me, the idea that a Democrat’s personal and political beliefs go against the norm in the military. I’m a liberal, and the things I believe in so staunchly that are in **opposition** to conservatives (like abortion rights) have NOTHING to do with the existence of the military.

      I keep trying to add to this list, and many of them are something that ostensibly the conservatives believe as well (peaceful protest, integrity of the vote). Of course, we emphasize different things on those issues.

      There are other issues that divide us more: defending rights of minorities, fair representation of citizens, integrity of the vote, no voter suppression, LGBTQ+ rights and gay marriage, gun control, national parks, protecting the environment, income inequality, taxes on right and poor, health care/insurance, boosting the economy by subsidizing business, police brutality…

      And none of them really have anything to do with the military.

      It’s true that INSIDE the military, it’s a relatively authoritarian organization. It has to be–you’ve got to have soldiers who follow orders instead of debating. But it’s also true that this is INSIDE the military, and not in our country as a whole. And my impression is that there’s a very strong delineation of civilian and military.

      Now, that may be shifting, since the military is now volunteer, and it pulls a lot from economically depressed areas, and right now are more likely to be rural, and therefore conservative. And of course the people who WANT to join the military (and the police) are often people who are drawn to an authoritarian point of view. And the narrative is more and more to shift us toward a “worship” of the military (it’s not the Army’s flag, goddammnit; it’s MINE; it’s the CITIZENS’ flag).

      But that’s why it’s so important to reject this concept–that only “conservatives” can care about military service, that only “conservatives” are welcome in military service; that military service is “proof” that you are “conservative” and an asshole.

      And it’s true that I might have some strong differences from conservatives about WHERE our military is used, or whether its tactics are just (I’m really bothered by drone strikes, morally; but I don’t have a well-thought-out opposition, just a general squickiness about killing with remote control).

      I would say that every one of the people I personally know who are in the military are liberals, actually.

      1. I think what you wrote was part of the point, actually. Outside the military, the view is that it’s composed of very conservative and republican persons and ideals. and Increasing the democratic and liberal voices by more democratic/liberal people joining is a way to change that public opinion. Also most of the people I know who have military experience are liberals too, but that may have more to do with living in a very liberal area.

  40. Dear LW, I grew up in a small town that was quite left on labor and public education, yet also strongly pro-military. In a one-industry town, where the industry was dying, parents wanted their kids to have options other than working in the mines, and a term in the armed forces was the most available route to higher ed and social mobility.

    You did what you needed to do in order to get out of a situation that was untenable for you. I support you in caring for your own well-being, and I hope your colleagues and comrades will, too.

    I know that working class and poor young folks deserve options for a life that meets their needs *without* endangering their own lives or the lives of people whom the US dislikes. I can agitate for a world where those of us who aren’t wealthy have better options, while recognizing that we don’t currently live in that world.

    Wishing all good things to you!

  41. I’m active in my local Indivisible group and Democratic Party. I don’t know if those are left enough for you, but we do have a number of veterans, and appreciate their perspective. It makes our movement richer and stronger to have people who know personally how the military works.

    1. My local Indivisible group isn’t actually liberal or even explicitly left-leaning. It’s supposedly to “start a dialogue” or something and they want to welcome regretful Trumpets or some crap. Just wanted to flag for LW in case she seeks it out and doesn’t find what she’s looking for.

  42. I have spent my entire teen and adult life in left-left social circles. First, unless you are actually defending the military itself as an awesome institution, no one is going to judge you, IME. People tend to understand that people join the military for lots of reasons, and I don’t think anyone I’ve ever met would find your story unsympathetic. I have been in situations where people were ex-military and it was not a big deal. It was a little bit of a deal when this one guy tried to convince us, in the nineties, that the military in general was not homophobic, but even there it wasn’t all yelling and cursing and “never darken the door of this radical bookstore again”.

    My bet is that people will be curious about your experiences, and also that if you have any interesting skills they will be impressed. (I don’t mean, like, combat skills – just, if you can make a bed really well, or have a special way of packing your backpack, or have super upper body strength or something.) I would be prepared for a few awkward – but not hostile – questions, if I were you.

    It’s not totally inconceivable to me that you might encounter an individual asshole in some situations, but I have literally never seen ex-military leftists treated with anything but interest and courtesy in activist circles.

  43. Presumably it depends on your specific social group, or maybe the US is different from Canada in this, or maybe I just haven’t seen it as I am not a veteran myself, but I’ve spent a lot of time in universities and have lots of fairly lefty friends, and I can’t think of any negatively I’ve particularly noticed towards individual soldiers. Towards army commanders, the military in the abstract, warmongering politicians, yes, but generally veterans seem to be respected. Partly because of the assumption that most join the military for honourable reasons and can’t be blamed for political decisions (and indeed are often victims of them), and partly because even those soldiers who really do support things we might find unethical do put their money and lives where there mouth is.

    It may be different for US veterans -the US military has a particularly bad reputation so there might be more of a tendency to think ‘how could they not have know what they were signing up to be part of’… but FWIW I have only ever seen positive atttudes to individual soldiers. YMMV.

    1. I think it’s because traditionally Canadians had a reputation primarily as Peacekeepers, not active invaders. I agree that we Canadians tend to be fairly neutral regarding individual military personnel and veterans. But IME whether a Canadian supports or despises the overall military complex depends very much on location. Smaller cities and rural towns tend to be far more supportive of the military industrial machine, often with very right wing conservative, racist attitudes attached.

    2. Studies have shown that militaries are a reflection of the cultures from which they are drawn. I have worked with Canadian, US, and other countries’ militaries and would definitely agree with this – this is true even within different parts of the country (an army study showed that PPCLIs are more conservative and the 22 are “more hedonistic”). The Dutch are unionised! From personal experience, Canadians were more likely to learn the languages of the people they were helping (they were teased about this by US military who – on average – didn’t know nearly as much about local cultures (this was also an institutional problem as Canadians have pre-deployment cultural training whereas the US military didn’t seem to know where it was going to send its people until they were on a plane)).

      Again based on personal experience, specifically talking to military from different countries (so this is anecdotal but I’ve met dozens over the years from many different backgrounds), I also noticed that those in the US are more often driven to join their military due to financial / medical reasons. A child with a disability is a huge problem in the US, and social services are much more rare, so I was more likely to view the US military as the last resort within a very broken system (not limited to, but very strongly including, universal health care).

      Some of my family are very lefty, and the most lefty of them have no issue that I spend time with the military – my explanation is similar to those here who said that it’s important to have a spectrum of voices, and they accepted and encouraged my decision.

      Best of luck LW, and I completely agree with those who say that any group who doesn’t want you is just making it easier to find an effective, and truly open-minded bunch of people with whom to share your talents!

  44. Also I’m not sure most science departments are all THAT liberal. Again, maybe Canada is very different from the US in this, but we seemed to have a range of people. Perhaps very right wing people were somewhat underrepresented, and certainly people with university degrees were overrepresented 🙂 but ultimately the hard sciences aren’t that political (at least not in Canada).

    1. The hard sciences tend to be fairly left leaning in the U.S., with the exception of some medical fields which can be pretty conservative. The sciences are more conservative than academia in general (maybe excepting economics) and way behind the curve on gender issues, but when I was in the sciences everyone I knew who wasn’t predisposed to socially or economically liberal positions had performed a calculation that went, “Republican politicians don’t believe in evolution, climate change, good information security practices, or the fundamental theorum of calculus. I have enough expertise in science to determine that at least two of those positions shows a shocking disregard for expert consensus and advice. I have limited resources and cannot be an informed policy expert on most subjects, but absent complete agreement with a Republican candidate on a different issue that is overwhelmingly the most important consideration for me, I’m just going to assume someone with judgment that badabout who to listen to in my area of expertise exercises equally bad judgment in the myriad other policy areas elected officials must take positions on based not on their own knowledge, but based on knowing the difference between a bona fide expert and a loud crackpot.”

      1. I know this is mostly OT at this point, but–in academia, even scientists who aren’t already left leaning and who don’t write off Republicans because of their positions on scientific facts generally lean liberal out of self interest. Republicans have a habit of indiscriminantly cutting/trying to cut federal and state funding for any scientific research that isn’t explicitly directed to a a military application or a curing sympathetic, uncontroversial disease. Democrats… will also often reduce funding, but not across the board for all nonmilitary/nondisease research, and generally only when they need to compromise with conservatives to reach a budget at all. Most rational, selfish scientists prefer keeping their labs to a tax cut.

  45. I just want to say, as a lefty and a pacifist (and the sister of a super-conservative army vet and the daughter of now left-leaning navy vets), that I would be super grossed out if I saw any of my fellow lefty pacifists making anyone feel unwelcome, especially a veteran. I know that there will be people who are shitty to you, and I just want to apologize for them in advance! GO YOU, YOU ARE AMAZING.

  46. I almost never leave comments on things ever , but this seems pretty close to home in that my father joined the marines to escape a toxic, abusive family situation and extreme poverty in one of the most gang infested neighborhoods in Los Angeles in the 90s. He’s very liberal and it was a choice he made to survive and support himself. My heart hurts to know that people won’t understand your plight, but people like my dad and a fairly large group of his left leaning vet friends and vet father figures are the type of people who wouldn’t ever turn away someone in your position. I hope thats some sort of encouragement and if some of these leftists groups are too close minded to include you, I’m sure there are other circles who would be glad to have you contribute to their efforts and ideas.

  47. I’m not comfortable with the jargon (solidarity, comrade, etc.). But, that aside, what I see in the original letter writer is a person who has a desire to live an ethical life, a person who can grow and change, who has self-awareness, can work herself out of a difficult situation without becoming destructive or self-destructive. I admire people who can grow, learn, change their minds, develop a conscience, be responsible. I admire that once she decided the military wasn’t for her, for ethical reasons, she worked her way out of it.

    I like people like that and want to be around them so I have good examples for myself.

    1. Yes, all this.

      LW, you’re young and yet you have so much knowledge and experience to draw upon, and you seem very grounded and self-aware – this will serve you in good stead going forward. I believe there are terrific opportunities out there that will find you. Best wishes.

    2. Out of curiosity, why is the word “solidarity” uncomfortable for you?

      I’m a democratic socialist and while I use the word “comrade” at DSA gatherings with great fondness, I understand why it’s still not a great word to use with folks who aren’t my political peers. If you’re comfortable sharing, knowing what may be off-putting about “solidarity” will help me talk to people about my views.

  48. Shifting one’s priorities and politics takes strength, I think, and we can learn a lot from each other by paying attention to where others have been and why they aren’t there now.

    LW, I wish for you that you can find spaces where you are not only accepted, but appreciated.

  49. I wouldn’t share the abuse except with people you want to. You don’t owe anyone your story. As for the rest, joining as a child, growing to have different views, what is more real than that!?!?! When I read the letter I thought why does this person need a ‘story’ or scripts when the one she gave was pretty awesome! I’m a far leftist and I have friends who’ve served. Some are left leaning, some not so much. I am closer to the left leaners bc we have more in common but for you’ve got people judging you, you need better people. I know a number of folks who’ve joined, served, and their dreamy ideas about service were crushed when they encountered reality. In my opinion you are uniquely suited to speak about this, in a way I’m not, having never served. And thank you for your service… You are not to blame for our country’s military mistakes. You deserve our respect despite the fact I think our govt uses our military in rather egregious ways to further some pretty dark agendas.

  50. I half-jokingly describe my political leanings as “lefty loony liberal” (because, living in Texas, a bit of self-deprecating humor can defuse a situation where I often wind up in dialogue with people whose beliefs are different from — or antithetical to — mine.)

    And I have a number of good friends who are vets, in various places on the far-left-to-center spectrum, and they’ve been welcomed in the liberal and progressive movements I’ve participated in.

    Admittedly, I’m not in academia, but a number of them went to college on the GI bill and did just fine.

    I think that you have valuable perspectives and experience to share, I respect the choices that you made (I also had to get away from an abusive parent, by different means), and any organization that you join will be lucky to have you.

    Wishing you all the best, and sending my own lefty/progressive support your way ❤

  51. I just wanted to add one last (argh!) thing. This topic resonates so much. I think, with any radicalized political movement, there will be folks who draw the battle lines between good and evil and conduct the fight accordingly. At a certain point, we all stop thinking and start acting. And that line isn’t just between military/not; corporate/not. For example, I’ve recently joined a unionization movement at my university – and there are some good people angry with our “compromise” by working with UAW, which they see as too mainstream and established. There are people in my department who refuse to read Marx because he glossed over (alienated! ha!) women’s domestic labor. So maybe my point is that – it’s not you, or your unique personal history, or anyone else’s unique personal history, or about anyone being too objectively ‘corrupted’ by past events to credibly join a ‘pure’ ideological movement. that’s not what’s going to flip triggers. it’s the nature of politics itself. None of us, for any reason, should EVER take someone’s bad reaction as a personal failure.

  52. Also, arguments asserting/demanding ideological purity risk descending into dangerous Jacobite (populist?) claptrap – no matter where you are on the ideological spectrum. It allows us to dehumanize the impure.

  53. Delurking to recommend the podcast What a Hell of a Way to Die–leftist veterans discussing current events.

  54. There’s a lot of people in this comment thread going “Well, in my leftist groups no one ever does things like that,” and while that’s nice for you that’s not my experience.

    I’m in Britain and a moderate lefty and have been attacked by more hardline activists for: supporting Britain being part of the EU, not thinking people should call opposing politicians Nazis for no reason, and also been told to my face I deserve violence and am a legitimate target of terrorism because I am involved in medical research on animals. So I can well believe there are leftists with shitty attitudes towards veterans.

    Those of us on the left really need to be wary that we don’t allow this kind of destructive self righteousness and polarised thinking to make our groups toxic.

    1. Siannette, that’s terrible that those who supposed to be your comrades and fellow workers turned out to be dickheads. I hope you’ve found more civilized people to work with.

  55. So. My spouse joined the military for reasons similar to yours, had a mental breakdown a few months in, and was entry-level separated. They don’t look the part and seldom talk about it now, but it’s there.

    We know people who spent time in the military or are still there for reasons ranging from people in situations like you or like my spouse to someone who had difficulty finding civilian employment in some particular field to a Unitarian Universalist minister who felt called to bring their faith into the armed forces as an alternative to the usual.

    In my personal experience, the “progressive” or “leftist” groups that are assholes about this are assholes about many, MANY other things as well. What I’ve encountered are groups that don’t reject veterans, exactly, but any time a veteran had something to say that made the group uncomfortable people in this group would armchair diagnose PTSD and claim it was the PTSD talking and not really the veteran themselves.

    One of these groups also loved to fat-shame on grounds of “hey it’s visibly obvious that you’re taking up more than your share of Mother Earth’s bounty!” and was garden-variety ableist in the name of saving the planet, which is something I’ve encountered a lot and find really bothersome.

    There was a particularly unpleasant group I was involved with for a bit that, in addition to the above “it’s your PTSD talking” crap, rolled their eyes and grumbled a lot if you unintentionally had a kid because that would get in the way of Revolutionary Working Time (and if you were separated from the kid’s other parent would encourage you to send kid there at least until kid was a teenager and thus a Useful Revolution Object) and if you INTENTIONALLY had a kid and made your kid(s) a priority…yikes. Same group also liked to encourage the replacement of committed relationships with “sex with your revolutionary comrades” which noooooope.

    Tl;dr your military history may serve as an excellent asshole filter when picking groups to join. And watch out for people informing you that your PTSD (which you obviously have because in their view all veterans do, at least the redeemable ones) is behind anything you say that makes them uncomfortable.

  56. My family are hardcore liberal but also have a strong history of military service (my Dad, my grandad). My sister is a prosecutor. Some liberal groups do try to exclude people like my dad and sister for holding these less pure jobs and i have found those people in general to be divorced from reality. You have problems with the criminal justice system? You need ethical prosecutors like my sister. You have objections to the military? You need JAG officers willing to risk their careers like my grandad to root out corruption or officers like my Dad who will make a stink when their admiral is tanking an important program. “True believers” or those who engage in those kind of purity tests aren’t the kind of people you want to be around. Ceding to the idea that the military or the law belongs to republicans allows them to use “support our troops” to silence objection to war while the same politicians gut service health benefits and programs. Reject that paradigm.

  57. I’m a left-leaning person who never served in the military. And I’m really lucky to have known open-minded (including left-leaning) veterans and soldiers, not only for their company but because if I didn’t know them personally I wouldn’t know they exist (because super conservative military voices tend to be so loud that they drown everyone else out). And I’d definitely be the more naive for it. The loudest voices on the left can often drown out the rest of us, too. For many folks, even people who came from the “correct” leftist background, it isn’t despicable, but especially admirable when someone pulls a 180 with their beliefs. That’s not easy to do!

    It’s got to be tough to weather those personal lobs from leftist group members, but if it makes you feel any better, you’re doing an enormous favor for any inexperienced college kids and very cloistered leftists who may be present in those groups, by exposing them to a new experience, even if that favor is unwelcome at the time. Like, a really big favor.

    Even if seeking out leftist groups proves completely unbearable (and I don’t think it would be), there are still many, many left-leaning individuals roving around in “conservative” regions and institutions, unattached to any group but whose company you might eventually find.

  58. I’m a member of a different socialist organization (the International Socialist Organization) with a long personal history of organizing in the antiwar and military counter-recruitment movements. I am not a veteran myself, but *many* of my most valued comrades are. Solidarity, comrade; I’m so glad that you were able to escape abuse, that you are now almost out of the military, and that (I’m confident) you’re going to find a good place for yourself in our movement.

  59. I have worked for years in leftie spaces and can say for myself that I have so deeply appreciated the voices of vets who were also at the table. Just by virtue of your service you bring so much knowledge, experience and valuable perspective on such a variety of topics that anyone who would turn you away is losing out big time. Good luck!

  60. Letter Writer, as a Leftist who grew up in a military family (brother, sister, uncles, aunts, grandparents), thank you. Most of my family acknowledges that the reason they joined was for the skills (organization, motivation of others, goal setting and achievement) – and the chance at higher education. They weren’t fond of what they saw in the military. Most of them are out now and support more left-leaning ideology.
    As a supporter of the DSA, they need you and others like you who have seen what’s really there, not just the images and words that people have given them.
    I hope you did find good things in your service and that you find good things out of your service.

  61. Many a 17 year old has gotten into a relationship that ultimately didn’t work out. They realize that while it seemed like a good idea at the time and that it did have some good aspects, at some point they had changed and it was time to break up and move on. I’d find it very odd if anyone who met that person in the future somehow held it against them that they’d dated someone, learned from the experience and was now dating someone else or not dating. Same for any of the decisions (note that I don’t call them mistakes) that we make at that age (or any age really) concerning employment, purchases, school, area of study, cities we move to, people we make friends with, right on down to fashion choices and haircuts (okay, I’ll call that haircut I got a mistake as opposed to a decision).

    When we meet new people, it comes up naturally in conversation what we were doing. Talking about traffic might lead to “when I was living in Houston …” Talking about the crowded planes might lead to “I learned about flying when I was in the air force …” You just talk about what the subject makes you think of. The person you’re talking to might reasonably be interested. “Oh, you were in the air force? What was it like?” Or “my father was in the air force. Why did you join?” And then you answer in whatever way feels appropriate.

    Just as it’s wrong for other people to make assumptions about your political beliefs, it makes little sense to jump to a bunch of conclusions about what people in left-leaning organizations must think about people who were in the military. You just meet them openly, start to chat, and see where the conversation takes you. As with anyone, you might find you have a lot in common and the basis for a friendship. You might find that you’re met with hostility, but that says more about them than it does about you. I wouldn’t get on the defensive by rushing to explain that you no longer condone or actively oppose anything. That could certainly come up, but explain in the way anyone explains anything they’ve changed their mind about. “When I joined, I was thinking this, but it was my experience with that which made me starting thinking about something else, and then I read this book and heard that speech, and realized …”

    1. The points you have just made are all diamonds. You can’t (there are exceptions) hold people morally accountable for decisions they made when they were children. When I was 17 I thought I could be given “permission” to use the N word. The entire point of growing up is that you change, and I’d like to think most people can understand that.

      LW, I’m not in the military, but as a bleeding heart liberal I can confirm that your explanation is perfectly sufficient should you feel the need to justify your presence in a conversation. You don’t need to include the dirty deets about your abuse, but “I joined when I was a teenager and changed my mind/regretted it/realized that xyz soon after” is both reasonable and relatable. It’s true you’ll encounter folks who will tell you you’re irredeemably bad, but I don’t think there are scripts for dealing with people like that.

      For what it’s worth, LW, I think everybody in the comments here respects you.

  62. LW here! Thank you so much to Goat Lady (and the commenters) for all of your advice. You told me exactly what I needed to hear, and it’s a relief to know that I won’t be automatically tossed out of all leftist spaces just because I’m a vet. I especially appreciate you bringing up the DSA, PSL and Veterans for Peace. I actually hadn’t heard of those organizations before, but it seems like my values are very much in line with theirs, so I’m excited to look into them, and probably join them! DSA even has a regular and a YDSA chapter in the city where I’m going to be living. Again, thank you everyone for your support and advice!

  63. Anybody who tries to blame your individual decision for the evils of the MIC is not your friend. Look for the leftists who try to improve life for everybody so that joining the military doesn’t have to be somebody’s way out anymore.

  64. OP, like a lot of people are saying, I think you’ll find that liberal and left-leaning circles tend to view veterans very differently than the military-industrial complex. It’s well-known that lots of people enlist because they don’t have a ton of other options, and that it would be shitty to hold that against them.

    That said, I can see why you’re worried! Even a lot of well-meaning people will treat it as ‘an unfortunate, non-ideal thing you were forced into by a bad situation, you poor thing’ (as opposed to, say, ‘a tool you used to take control of your life and change your circumstances’, or ‘a job like any other job, all of us have had less-than-ideal jobs at some point’). And there will be a couple who will see you as complicit and will say you should have found another way.

    My advice is: Know your own narrative. What was your military service to you? What did you get out of it? What good did you accomplish as a result of it? Do you feel that you also did harm–if so, what did you do/are you doing to balance that out? Was it worth it, in the end? Don’t let other people answer those questions for you. You deserve to answer them for yourself, no matter whether it aligns with other people’s perceptions. You don’t have to know all the answers right now, and I’m betting they’ll shift over time (perspective changes with age, that’s normal), but it’s better to stick to ‘I don’t know’ than to let someone else tell your story for you.

    If you’re staying true to yourself, keeping at the things you’re doing well, and working to do better where you feel you need to improve, I think you’ll win over most of your doubters soon enough. (And everyone has doubters–if yours didn’t have military service to focus on, they’d probably find something else, that’s just what they do.) The few who will judge you so harshly for being a veteran that they ignore who and what you are now, aren’t worth trying to prove yourself to anyways.

  65. If this were the UK, some left activists might find it difficult to trust someone with the LW’s background, on the basis that they may be an agent provocateur acting for the security services. There is a long and painful history of this in the UK. (One cruel irony is that real agent provocateurs (agents provocateur?) have elaborate false histories designed to allay suspicion.)

    If this is also an issue in the US, some people may be hostile/untrusting for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. Not much to be done about it, but perhaps worth being aware.

    1. The US government has taken that kind of action, but generally through its intelligence/LEO agencies (FBI, CIA) rather than through the military. Plus, as you say, from everything I’ve read the infiltrators had fictional backstories anyway.

  66. I can’t comment on the military or American stuff, but I was a mature student with lefty views going to a uni that felt like it was full of baby adults. (I recognise that these kids were 18, but they constantly reminded me of how little I knew when I was an 18yo baby adult!) If you want to fell better prepared for potential problems, try to come up with some different responses for different people in different situations.

    I had an experience that demonstrates this: Towards the end of a seminar, a professor said something obnoxiously classist – that ‘chavs’ (meaning poor working class students) should be excluded from [this uni] because ‘they are all criminals’; then one of the baby adults spoke up to agree (student literally said ‘whenever [student] has to pass a group of them [poor students] in the halls, they smell funny’).

    When I spoke up to object, the professor doubled-down, and revealed a past attack by some poor kid who stole from him. I realised he had some kind of PTSD and was being utterly irrational about one criminal = this whole group are all evil, so I wrote him off, and concentrated on reaching the class, and especially that particular student who spoke up. I debated with him long enough to point out how irrational he was being. I spoke up strongly, didn’t let him get away with any nonsense, but remained angry-but-polite throughout. I didn’t change his mind, and I was okay with that, because that wasn’t the point.

    That student who agreed with the prof’s classism was wearing expensive clothes, and this was a first-year BA class, so I mentally tagged them as more rich-kid ignorant (parroting others without thinking) than aggressively bigoted. So for them, I tried to be friendly and informative about why what they said was wrong and offensive and how they should, at minimum, not say things like that out loud in public. (Baby steps; the three of us only spoke for about five or ten minutes, it was a fast-moving incident).

    What you say will vary depending on where you are (in class? At an organised group event? In a a cafe or bar?) who you’re speaking to, whether they have any power or influence over you (at undergrad level, the Admin staff often matter more than most profs, actually) and how much time and space you have to influence them. It’s harder to change the mind of a whole group all at once, than individuals in one-on-one conversations, for example.

    Also, be prepared to feel isolated not as a lefty, but as a mature student. Even a couple of years can feel like a couple of decades, when you’re talking 18yo who’s never left home or worked or done their own chores, vs someone who’s lived and worked as an independent adult. Many 18yos may be intimidated by you, so be prepard to put yourself forward and reach out a lot if you want a student-y social life

    Best of luck to you.

    1. That’s a good point about being a mature student being isolating, I only worked for a couple of years between highschool and college but even that was enough to put me out of sync with most of my classmates. To be fair, it didn’t help that I was one of very few women in a programming course, but even without that it would have been a little bit awkward to be just a little older than so many of my classmates.

      On the upside, I was far from the only mature student in my program and I bet you won’t be the only one in yours either. Just be prepared for not being invited to all the parties 🙂

  67. One resource that may be of interest is Jerry Lembcke’s The Spitting Image. The author, a Vietnam veteran and professor, unpacks the common but distorted perceptions about the treatment of Vietnam veterans that became entrenched in the media and pop culture (Rambo, etc) and accepted unquestioningly as historical facts in later decades, with major political implications for current discussions about the military and veterans. The most hostile civilians Lembcke encountered were conservative pro-war ones who verbally abused him when he joined a Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest, as opposed to the familiar stereotype of leftist hippies. A number of left-wing veteran scholars have contributed their crucially important insights to historical scholarship, such as Howard Zinn (World War II bombardier and author of A People’s History of the United States). All good wishes to you in your college career.

  68. Hey, Regretful Veteran, you did what you had to do to escape abuse and I’m proud of you. I am sorry many people don’t understand child abuse or find it too upsetting to think about so won’t be able to respect your choice but I hope now you have completed your service you can enjoy the life you deserve.

  69. I’m a leftist and I will say that having veterans in our groups strengthen us so much. You have skills and knowledge and possible access/connections that we don’t. Not to mention having an american who can speak from personal experience about the horrors of US imperialism can help boost the work of the colonized people (if it is done correctly & respectfully).

    I think it may be helpful to remember that many peoples distrust of soldiers comes from pain and fear. Many of us have been brutalized by the national guard, many of us have faced armed veterans calling for white nationalism and many colonized people have directly been harmed by the US armed forces, even if they are now living and organizing in the states.

    The best way to build trust in the left is to respect groups boundaries and politics. You hurt people or helped other people hurt people. If a group does not want or are hostile to veterans, remember they are coming from a place of trauma. Pushing back on that, fighting people on accepting someone in that hurt them because you changed now is only going to deepen distrust. I would say I understand, I’ll see you in the streets! ((lefty way of saying i understand why you wont work with me, but illl have your back in the larger struggle).

    Also, just want to voice some frustration at the giant plug for DSA while having no mention of leftist veterans groups like Iraq Vets against the Way and The Vets for peace among others. Redneck Revolt is also super open to veterans and they focus their work on recruiting people out of white supremacist militias, which is disproportionally veterans. like dsa is a good group (a bit centrist and process focused for me) but its by far not the only option.

    1. Socialist from an org with a lot of DSA dual members here. Just want to say I’m delighted to see a DSA member posting at CA (I’m not a member but I work with a lot of DSA people locally). And I just want to second this response, about respecting groups’ boundaries and politics. It’s incredibly important to be able to work with people you may not like, or who may not like you, or groups whose politics you don’t share, as a practicing socialist/communist/anarchist.

      There will be a lot of socialist or anarchist groups and people that will welcome you as ex-military (DSA’s Veterans Working Group, Veterans for Peace, etc), and some that may not. And this doesn’t necessarily make those groups or people toxic or mean. If you’re a solid comrade and you show up and have peoples’ backs and prove that you’re trustworthy and honest, you’ll still find lots of people on the left who will be your comrades and your friends.

  70. I hang out in lefty social justicey spaces a lot. Goat Lady’s advice is great. And I had a few other thoughts if the lefty spaces you’re ending up in are more in the social justice/identity sphere (i.e. anti-racist or poc group, queer student group, feminist group, disability justice etc) than the socialist sphere. If you talk about how not everyone has the class privilege or life circumstances to have job/escape options that aren’t the military that will mesh well with the social justice framework and should make people catch themselves. You can also ask people to clarify that what they actually hate is the system and not ALLLL the people involved, “You hate the military industrial complex as a system–right?– a system that kills people abroad and sucks poor, working class, poc and other people into it to go kill people for the economic interests of the wealthy. You don’t actually hate everyone who has ever served. People’s reasons for going in and their conduct within the service are varied and complex. And the US has done real harm to people in the military in how the military operates and the lack of support when people return. And unfortunately it’s a system we’re all complicit in through our tax dollars, when we buy cheap oil, etc. The ways service members are part of that system is way more obvious than the white suburban mom filling up her gas tank who voted for Bush but there is responsibility across the board.” Your choice if it feels safe to reveal your experience in that narrative. And also your choice as to who/when/where you reveal it to. Personally I’m a fan of both owning my identities and waiting a little while to figure out who I am with when it comes to sharing more hidden identities and experiences. I tend to wait until I have some raport/common ground with someone before I reveal something important to me that I think there may be conflict around.

    There is PLENTY of toxicity on the Left–I say this as someone for whom most of my favorite people are part of the Left. I learned a lot from this article on the topic. https://medium.com/@YotamMarom/undoing-the-politics-of-powerlessness-72931fee5bda

    There are also a number of Lefty Veteran’s groups which you may want to check out. I’ve had a few friends be involved and they sound great.

  71. I’m not really a Marxist, but one of the most important things I learned from reading The Communist Manifesto is that our world is messed up not because of bad people but because of bad social institutions. Marx and Engels were absolutely withering in their critique of political factions who believed that the way to solve the depredations of capitalism was for capitalists to just be nicer people, dammit.

    So anyone who can’t tell the difference between “the US military as an institution does bad things” and “soldiers as individuals are bad people” needs a refresher course in some left-wing classics.

    (PS: I used to work for a startup whose product’s main customers were energy companies and intelligence agencies. Our CEO declared at a staff meeting that the only two things that could really destroy the business were world peace and cheap oil. Moral compromise, I haz it.)

  72. When you encounter judgmental lefties who feel superior to other people for shit like this, just remind yourself that ideology does not trump humanity. Any humanist leftist true to their morals will not only be understanding with you, but stand in active *solidarity* with you, because they *will* understand why you are a veteran, and appreciate your -no doubt- much more profound and better-informed criticism of the military. Someone up there already mentioned Israel; I interviewed an Israeli ex-soldier active in a pro-Palestinian rights organization some years ago, and what made him specially valuable in that fight was that he actually had *lived* through (and even enforced) the human rights abuses he was now fighting.

    Imperialist forces recruit among those who have very little choice in the matter, or simply no choice at all. It has always done so; it’s part of the built-in inequality that the powerful thrive from in this system. That is why it is crucial for us lefties to remind ourselves of the humanity of both soldiers and police officers, because they must also take part in dismantling the system that allows for such terrible monopolies of violence in the first place.

    What I mean is, haters gonna hate, and leftist circles are no exception. In fact, activist circles can be VERY judgmental because peer pressure is used to get people to do “all of the activisting” and more, and this means that groups can get pretty exclusive and even toxic. So, as a fellow leftie, I ask you to always take care of yourself and stick by the people who respect you simply as a human being, regardless of ideology. And inside leftist circles, only listen to those who understand your journey, your bravery and your extremely valuable personal experience in this area in particular.

    Solidarity ❤

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