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Iraq and Afghan Veterans and the American Future

Members of the Grand Army of the Republic, 1892

An estimated 2, 333, 972 Americans have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since September 2001. Of these, 977, 542 were deployed more than once. When final combat operations end in Afghanistan and the numbers from peripheral theater operations against al Qaida are counted, these figures will be somewhat larger.  It must also be remembered, that among these volunteers were 4,683 men and women who did not return, except in a flag draped coffin. This grim statistic too, will increase before the end.

Wars continue to shape the fate of nations long after the guns fall silent.  Mrs. Florence Green, who served in Great Britain’s embryonic Royal Air Force and was the last living veteran of the First World War, died the other day at 110, but we are still grappling with the terrible consequences of the Great War. One of the ways in which wars shape society are through the collective memories and internalized lessons, expressed by it’s veterans.

Not every war produces a great riptide across a national psyche. The Korean War was as silent as the generation that fought it, despite being comparable in some ways to the war in Vietnam, whose images and memories are bitterly iconic.  Other wars loom large. The culture of the trenches and the bloody debacles of the Somme and Verdun produced ex-soldiers who contributed much to revolutionary upheaval and the mass militarization of European politics. In a more benign vein, the Civil War veterans, the “generation whose hearts were touched by fire” and “the greatest generation” of WWII did much to shape the character of  subsequent eras of peace, moderation, stability, social reform and economic growth.

What will the veterans of the wars of 9/11 come to personify?

They are different.  Volunteers in a small professional military, these veterans are far fewer in number and less strictly “generational” than their mass-mobilized predecessors of the world wars, Korea and Vietnam. Every man on D-Day or on Okinawa had “Pearl Harbor” as a common experience, but in 2011, an 18  year old Marine in Afghanistan was only in third grade when planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Their close comrades in combat may include reservists a decade and a half their senior, married and with families. The United States fought it’s wars but not with your grandfather’s army.

They are held in high esteem by a public from which many feel isolated. They have committed suicide at three times the rate of the general population, to a studied indifference from a stultified and mismanaged military personnel bureaucracy. They receive public accolades and parades that eluded those who served in Vietnam but some veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have had trouble getting the medical attention their injuries required.

These veterans have not yet found their collective “voice” but the early rumblings have been about broken faith in leaders who have let them down.

I suspect we will be hearing that voice soon and it may change our politics for the better.

8 Responses to “Iraq and Afghan Veterans and the American Future”

  1. Madhu Says:

    I admit, I’m a little worried about some of the younger people. I’ve been hearing muted rumblings for some time now on the various sites I visit. Nothing overt or explicit necessarily, but the distress at the higher ups seeps through some of the commentary. I do worry. I’ll be honest.
    I hope we do hear their voices and it does change our politics for the better.

  2. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    What exactly do you speak of, Madhu? Don’t name names, of course, but what constitutes rumblings?
    What’s to be worried of? Hopefully you’re not thinking along the lines of Secretary Napolitano…

  3. Madhu Says:

    Gosh, I only meant a certain amount of personal distress and unhappiness. Sort of like, you sold us down the river with your stupid ROE and all you care about is your career and being yes men. Like always, I suppose. Catch-22, etc., etc. It’s just a lot more complaining, I guess, when I visit certain comment sections. And I won’t name names because I read widely and don’t care to spill beans 🙂
    Why such a high suicide rate? This is not my specialty so I don’t know that much about it.

  4. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Ok, I know what you mean, then…
    I can’t speak to the suicide rate, except that a country of our richness and population is relying on less than 1% of its people to take the fight to the enemy, repeatedly, extendedly, year after year, over and over again, relentlessly. It’s rather unprecedented, really.
    Thanks for the response.

  5. Chris Says:

    I too wonder what will happen to this generation in the military. In the UK we’re seeing mass redundancy amongst soldiers, people who have traditionally found it hard to integrate into society. They will be returning to little in the way of work, and without great hope for employment. What happens when thousands of veterans with combat experience enter a society which is already restive and pumped up on the language of the 99% vs the 1%?
    I’m slightly maudlin just at the moment, so perhaps this is too grim a question, but its worth asking.

  6. Lexington Green Says:

    I am worried about worse things.  I had a conversation with a lawyer who works for the DOJ.  His work is focused on a nearby, medium sized American city.  His job is prosecuting drug related and gang related crime.  He is a former intelligence officer who served in Iraq.  He is using his intelligence skills from his counter-insurgency work against the gang which is his main enemy.  The gang is composed of a small inner circle of real, hardcore members and a much larger circle of expendable wannabes and fanboys who do low paid scutwork.  One requirement for recruitment into the inner, real gang is recent military experience, particularly combat experience.  So, we are seeing the Army, upon returning home, lining up on opposite sides of the War on Drugs and fighting against itself right here in the good old USA.  These skills are now floating around in the domestic economy with no particular outlet, and no thriving job market to suck up all these guys and give them something productive to do.  This cannot be good.  


  7. Chris Says:

    I think “cannot be good” slightly understates the problem in this case Lex! I think there’s a good case study of what happens when a bunch of former soldiers decide to become a criminal organisation in the form of Los Zetas. Again, I think we’ll see the same thing in the UK, as particularly youth employment is constantly ramping up (now over 1m), so younger soldiers, perhaps a little disaffected by the state, choose to create their own employment opportunities in less mainstream avenues. 
    There are two risks in what you are talking about to my mind. Risk one is that former soldiers remain in the US and suppliment or form their own gangs. Long term, as these gangs grow and professionalise they will become a greater and greater threat. Risk two is that they find employment in existing cartels and large already professional gangs, strengthening and enhancing their operations. If scenario 2 moves South of the border you could see former American servicemen being used to aid Mexican cartels penetrate American society.

  8. Madhu Says:

    Oh, I see now why my first comment elicited a response. I am very stupid, sometimes….
    First, the internet is full of liars so I have no idea if the “complainers” are for real or not. Second, I’m talking about former military members blabbing online, but, again, I have no idea if anyone is telling the truth or not. The internet makes sometime fibbers of a surprising number of people. Curious phenom.

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