Cinematic depictions of ongoing conflicts abroad perform poorly in the theaters and news reports of anything less thrilling than “shock and awe” fail to galvanize us as a people. Fighting has become a job. Just something we do as a country.
In the months following 9/11 Americans were compelled to thank first responders and servicemen, as well we should have. Politicians, stadium announcers and even antiwar protestors called on us to support our troops regardless of our feelings about our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. By now, we all know the drill. We put magnetic stickers on our cars, incorporate the Stars and Stripes into our corporate logos and are guided by a vague notion of how to behave appropriately with respect to speaking about the wars. But as the war in Afghanistan rages on, and even as the war in Iraq comes to an unceremonious close, our nation’s discussion of these conflicts is intellectually dishonest and an affront to all those who serve and sacrifice. Yet our attention span as a nation is far too short to gather a universal sentiment of disdain for war as Washington chicanery manages our expectations almost at will and throws us off the scent of discord.
The child-veteran returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan will not have to face the misplaced anger the Vietnam veterans received upon their return. Yet instead of accusing them we dishonor them by discarding them. I am old enough now to look at embarking and returning soldiers and say, my God, they’re just babies. Babies we are feeding into an incomprehensible reality. Many of them who return home are discovering there are few who even understand where they have been, let alone what they have been through. They are the walking dead who lead anachronistic existences slightly out of step with the rest of us as we go blithely about our days. There are no ticker-tape parades or statues of sailors kissing nurses; drug addiction and stress are the new realities of our young veterans.
Numbers don’t lie; they are absolute. But casualty figures omit critical aspects of combat. The numbers would indicate that we are getting better at fighting wars, or at least more efficient. The reduction in U.S. forces lost to our current wars is stunning compared to the wars of the 20th century: 58,000 U.S. soldiers lost in combat in Vietnam is exponentially greater than the nearly 6,000 lost in the past decade; this figure being further dwarfed by the nearly 400,000 men who lost their lives in World War II. But that doesn’t make these conflicts any less savage.
Those who survived Normandy or the Holocaust spoke little of it in the years following World War II, and when they did it was in hushed tones. There was a reverence toward what happened, almost shame on behalf of humanity that they were called upon to fight in order to preserve it. They carried the burden of a world gone mad and wrestled with whether or not what they had witnessed was real or even possible. Perhaps the honor of liberation assuaged the post traumatic stress of those we now refer to as the Greatest Generation—a feeling presumably absent from soldiers who fought with honor in strategic wars dishonorably plotted by politicians in North Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, we are distracted to the point of absolution for our actions abroad so long as the numbers reflect a palatable perspective of loss.
What now are we to do with these wars? Where will we place them in history and in our minds? How will we explain them to our children and in what context will the textbooks place them? Our leaders have painstakingly repackaged these power grabs as celebrations of democracy and assiduously sold them to the world.
For my part as a citizen and a member of the media I can only apologize to our soldiers. We are grappling with our own bizarre reality of profit and loss statements, unemployment claims, and an information glut that dilutes our attention. Perhaps we, as Americans, would have grown weary of these conflicts and tapped into our outrage if the number of dead was simply larger and more tangible, gruesome as it sounds. But because we failed to harness the outrage of our citizenry to prevent profligate demagogues from leading us to war this past decade, the best we can do is continue celebrating our soldiers’ service, care for their bodies and their minds upon their return, and bring an end to senseless political wars in the future.