In a post-draft era in which American civilians have grown increasingly apart from their military, veterans are urged to share their stories, to personalize distant and poorly understood conflicts—to make war meaningful. But individual veterans can't control the larger conversation in which their stories are interpreted or used. Veterans’ stories are ventriloquized by candidates in campaign rallies, recapped in late-night news monologues, retweeted by celebrities, optioned for film, and consistently cited as evidence of why we should, or shouldn't, be at war. This politically charged landscape for the telling of personal narrative (and the speed and ease with which stories circulate via mass media) creates unique challenges for veterans, who need to find meaning in their experiences for their own sakes, but resist the ready-made plots and morals imposed on them by politicians and popular culture. Caught between what Amy Shuman calls “competing promises of narrative,” veterans learn how to not tell war stories, relying on the denial or deferral of storytelling to assert small-scale meanings that resist recirculation and politicization. But to reject narrative outright is antisocial at best, and at worst pathological. Instead, the management of narrative—learning to select and edit stories for a given audience—is critical to avoiding the stigmatized identity of the traumatized veteran, who is either stubbornly silent or disturbingly voluble. Framing the withholding of narrative in positive rather than negative terms, my interlocutors stressed their need to curate the situations in which storytelling could keep its promises.

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