The war of my adolescence and young adulthood is the police action in
Vietnam. While geopolitical differences exist between the Vietnam War and
Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, investments of
"blood and treasure" continue to accrue their lasting dividends. No matter
what George H. W. Bush said during Desert Storm, many people both Vietnamese and US military personnel and their families experience difficulty navigating through the currents of daily life with danger vividly
imagined. With the United States' current military actions, our
responsibilities to our returning warriors will remain for decades.
For some reason historians like to discuss all types of wars by comparing them, but maybe not too far back. Vietnam veterans were disgraced because they were not welcomed home as heroes like WWII vets. That statement is held as a truth as wholeheartedly as some of our other truths: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Well, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and other excursions into the world of military might and control, including Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala have not been wars like WWI or WWII. World Wars One and Two were fought against one or more opposing governments with standing armies and departments of defense to negotiate with.
As the occupation of Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan drag on, battle-worn and sometimes maimed veterans return to us to be part of our human family. Many of these men and women will return, regroup into their spot in their world, and get on with their lives. Others, however, may have a more difficult time of it. Suicide for activity duty soldiers, marines, airmen and women, and sailors is presently higher than the general population in their age group. I have not seen any data to show the suicide rate for those military personnel who’ve been discharged. One article in my local paper discussed the difficulties veterans face in finding employment. I have not seen any articles about how the national guardsmen and women who return to civilian life are doing moving back into the jobs they had when they were called up. I’ve also read about how the military has the ability to say that if an emotional problem, of which post-traumatic stress disorder is one, existed prior to enlistment then it’s a pre-existing condition and we, the Veterans Administration, and the Department of Defense are not liable, and, therefore, do not have to fund services.
While emotional/psychological wounds cause deep pain and sometimes live in the shadows of a person’s life, the physical scars cannot be ignored. I think the classic major wound of the occupation of Iraq is burns. Many of our military personnel travel across the desert sands in Humvees, and some drive over and trigger improvised explosive devices (IED) that explode to cause a conflagration inside the vehicle, and many of those individuals burned survive thanks to our improved battlefield medical care. The image I have of the survivor of such an attack is of a handsome young man in one photo and of a man in a dress uniform at his wedding with a face so badly burned that his eyes are ovals, his nose two small circles and his mouth a slit in his shiny rippled skin.
Head trauma injuries will also plague the veterans of Iraq. The same IEDs that can immolate our soldiers can also bang their brains against their skulls in progressively more damaging injuries. When Bob Woodruff was in town on his book tour for In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing, he said a brief window of opportunity exists for the cognitive therapy that the injured person needs for recovery. Many of our military personnel who experience blasts have minor head trauma from which they recover enough without much or any treatment so that they continue with their deployment. Woodruff said that repeated injuries, even minor ones, accumulate damage to the brain. Eventually, all of these people who do not die will return to us, and we will have to care for them.
As our wealthier brothers and sisters are getting hefty tax cuts and we’ve been encouraged to shop, including to buy houses at prices we cannot afford, we also must assume the financial and emotional responsibility of supplying the extensive, lifetime care for our wounded warriors. “Support the Troops” is so much easier when someone’s explaining his or her position on the invasion of Iraq as follows: While a person may harbor hesitations about the motives or causes for the invasion, he or she is unswayed in his or her support for the men and women who have enlisted in the military. How easily given will that support be when it comes attached to a tax bill to pay for the lengthy care of our wounded brothers and sisters? We do pay whether it’s through the VA, other health care venues like emergency rooms or clinics, or the justice system through courts, jails and prisons for those returning veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of civilian law.
The world is at war with ideologies. The war against Communism was against an ideology but there were also countries with governments to duke it out with, often during the Cold War on opposite sides of wars in developing nations. The war on terror seems to be more nebulous. While governments and the geography of their countries may harbor terrorists and perhaps encourage, supply and arm individuals and groups, the USA isn’t at war with those governments, but rather with individuals or groups that adhere to particular ideologies – often at this time an interpretation of Islam. As I think back to Vietnam, I remember the soldiers’ fear of women – old and young- and little children because they might be wired with explosives. Civilians as bombs are not exclusive to Iraq or this war on terror. I cannot figure out when enough people will have died for the killing to stop. A time will come; it may involve some kind of victory for one side or the other, or it may be a cessation of hostilities without a declared victor, but with finger pointing on all sides. I do not think that our massive military will be able to bomb the ideological underpinnings of the war on terror into submission. At this point, the anger, hatred, clash of beliefs, and body count make it difficult for me to think a peaceful agreement can be brokered. I cannot get back far enough from the details to be able to see a big enough picture to see solutions that allow the human and ecological sacrifices to be honored while ending the destruction. My idealistic self would like the USA to pack up the troops, tear down the bases and return home. My pragmatic self knows that too many people have been injured and, like any injured animals, many of these people will continue to lash out and train others to lash out. Just recently I saw in “On This Date” in my local paper the USSR’s pull out from Afghanistan in 1989 after nine years of fighting. More and more Iraq comes to resemble both the USA’s involvement in Vietnam and the USSR’s in Afghanistan. I am reminded of John Kerry’s 1971 testimony to Congress on Vietnam:
Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be, and these are his words, 'the first President to lose a war.'
We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Now, of course, I wonder how much longer our present mistake in Iraq can continue, and what will be offered as solutions to the growing ideological warfare?