For almost as long as there has been war, writers, poets and playwrights have offered their perspectives on the experience. From Sophocles to Shakespeare -to the present day, war and its aftermath continue to be explored in books, movies and poetry. But despite all that’s been written and said and thought about war, there is not a single academic department in the U.S. devoted to “veterans studies.” Some scholars at Virginia Tech are looking to change that.
English Professor Jim Dubinsky served in the military in the late 70’s until the early 90s. While on active duty, he earned Master’s degree and a PhD while he was in the reserves. But he says, most veterans today don’t have that opportunity, and many of are also suffering from combat stress, and the sense that they are a forgotten minority.
“Less than 1 % of the population serves in the volunteer military, so, no matter how you slice it, we are the smallest and most underrepresented category of diversity and yet we play a large role in our country and our country’s history.”
About 10 years ago, veterans at Virginia Tech were added to the list of groups that comprise ‘diversity’ on campus. But, unlike others on that list, there is no academic program dedicated to the veteran experience, ---not at Virginia Tech, which is considered a top military friendly school, and nowhere else in the country. What Dubinsky and his colleagues would like to see is…
“A program that would be equivalent to African Studies, women’s studies, Appalachian studies, so it would really be an attempt to harness the research power of the University with research faculty who would dedicate time and energy and research dollars towards projects that would assist veterans and their families.”
Dubinisky has organized this second annual conference in Roanoke this weekend on Veterans in society. Research Librarian Bruce Pencek has been working with him on the project. He says there’s no lack of material to explore the meaning of military service.
“Homer wrote a veterans narrative, Shakespeare wrote plenty of veterans narratives, the excerpts from Sophocles’ Ajax that will be part of the Theater of War presentation at our conference, again, drawing upon the ubiquity of this experience. And so there’s been a lot of scholarship, but it has not jelled around the common recognition that these stories all connect and can connect with the medical literature, the psychotherapy literature, the social science literature and we’re trying to pull those strands together.”
The conference will also include screenings of 2 films, one called "Army Brats: Our Journey Home" and the other called “Where Soldiers Come From” both include discussions with the directors. And a panel discussion titled, "Support Our Troops.” With a question mark. It picks up the discussion that followed former Virginia Tech Professor Steven Salaita’s essay on that slogan appeared in Slate.com last year.
”First of all, I was trying to point to the basic reality that it’s not wise for an entire nation to speak in slogans or to uncritically accept slogans. That slogans feed into discourses in politics that serve certain people’s interest, they pretend to be serving everybody’s interest, but they often serve the interests of a particular group, usually the elite, and so I was trying that we need to think critically about the meaning of these slogans and platitudes and what relationship they have to the way that politics are conducted and how foreign policy is conducted in the United States.”
Salaita’s piece led to a strong backlash that devolved into personal attacks. He’s is now a Professor at the University of Illinois. He says it was sad to see the kind of vitriol that was unleashed.
“But it was even more heartening to see how many people appreciated the fact that somebody was willing to take on a sacred cow, which is what writers have always done and what writers have always gotten in trouble for doing.”
The conference on Veterans in Society is this weekend at the Hotel Roanoke Conference Center. The public is invited.