[In honors of Veterans Day, a series AmericanStudying veteran figures, histores, and stories. Leading up to a crowd-sourced post on all things veterans and Veterans Day—share your own stories and connections, please!]
On the distinct and even contrasting reasons why veterans’ organizations are formed.
As Alfred F. Young’s wonderful book The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (1999) demonstrates, American veterans have been gathering to remember and celebrate their service for as long as there’s been a United States of America. The 50th anniversary Revolutionary commemorations traced in Young’s book were not organized under the banner of a single veterans’ organization per se, but they certainly represented a collective effort to memorialize not only the Revolution’s principal events (such as the titular Boston Tea Party, among many others), but also those individuals and communities that contributed to them. And those dual and complementary purposes—gathering with fellow veterans to memorialize and celebrate the events and service they share—represent obvious but certainly central elements to any and all veterans’ organizations.
Young also convincingly argues that there was a present and political purpose to those commemorations, however—an effort to influence contemporary debates and issues through remembering the Revolutionary events and service in particular ways. That purpose to veteran organizing became even more pronounced later in the 19th century, when competing Civil War veterans’ organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) fought both to establish their own vision of the war’s histories and meanings and to advocate for concurrent contemporary political and social goals. Partly in an effort to distinguish themselves from these Civil War organizations, but partly to advocate for their own memorializations and goals, veterans of the Spanish American War formed yet another such organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. And after World War I, even though the VFW could have certainly covered all that war’s veterans, the era’s own political conflicts and controversies led Congress to charter instead a more overtly patriotic new organization, the American Legion.
There’s no reason why these distinct organizational purposes—community and commemoration on the one hand, political and social advocacy and activism on the other—have to be mutually exclusive, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that the more overtly political late 19th and early 20th century organizations weren’t also genuinely communal and commemorative. But I think it’s also important to note that the present and political purposes would also have a limiting effect—that is, that veterans who might otherwise fit the organization’s definition but who did not share its political orientation (for example, African American World War I veterans not inclined toward the kinds of jingoistic patriotism expressed by the American Legion) would find themselves excluded, unable to take part in the organization’s communal and commemorative activites and functions. Given the challenges and struggles that all veterans face, the kinds captured so eloquently in the text I’ll focus on in tomorrow’s post (The Best Years of Our Lives), it seems to me that the most successsful veterans’ organizations would be those that welcome and support all veterans.
Last post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d share for the weekend post?
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