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