28 November 2011

What's There to Say of Iraq, Afghan Wars?

"You don't want to know why I think we went," Warbuck tells me. It's late summer, he's back from Afghanistan for good, and we're meeting in a favorite burrito shop of mine. Most of the talk is about his swag and booty from a recent gaming convention held in Indiana, but there are pop-up targets of post-deployment politics, too. "I think it had something to do with keeping certain people in power. There ... and here."

"You know, I'd be OK with even that," I reply. "If only someone would man up and say that was the case."

Both in war and after war, there are few rules and even fewer answers. You get to make them both up as you go. Even when the game seems mostly played out, like it may now.

(To get a sense of this month's end-of-conflict vibe, check out this Nov. 27 retrospective from McClatchy Newspapers: "As U.S. troops leave Iraq, what is the legacy of eight years of war?" Or this Nov. 28 Associated Press article: "Drawdown wreaks havoc on Guardsmen's lives.")

On his "Best Defense" blog at Foreign Policy magazine last week, Tom Ricks presented this question: "'Just what did we fight and bleed for?' I think that as the United States leaves Iraq and shuffles toward the exit in Afghanistan, we need to think about how to answer that question when veterans of our wars there pose it."

I like Ricks' question, because it seems to put the proverbial boot onto the other foot: Rather than ask the soldiers of our grand republic to provide the meaning of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other 21st century military actions, it asks its citizens.

While I invite you to consider Ricks' first draft, as well as the many comments made to the post, here's an update of something I offered up to that particular online conversation:
We, through our elected leaders, asked you to do this: We asked you to leave your families and friends, and the comforts and freedoms of home. You did the missions you were assigned, and did them well. You and your families made sacrifices both large and small. We thank you for this. We honor your service. We welcome you home. Now, you may say we owe you nothing--that you were just doing your job, or your duty, or that you only did it to help pay for school, or just to pay the bills at home. Still, we would like to know: How can we help?
Like Ricks, I'm still playing with the language, but I think I'm on a right track: While it doesn't assume that everyone who comes back from deployment is somehow tragically damaged, it also doesn't shirk from recognizing that some may be permanently changed by the experience.

It avoids assigning glorious intentions in the contexts of grand historical schemes. It avoids using deflated labels such as "hero": Those words have more value when spent by peers and buddies--those who were actually there. Civilians tend to use the term too cheaply. Not every soldier is a hero, or wants to be one.

It also avoids diminishing the service of someone who might not have had cause to shoot or get shot at, but who still sacrificed a year or more of life to the deployment. Everyone has a different war.

It leaves open the questions about civilian employment, mental and physical health, and reintegration with family, friends, and society. Of course, it also leaves open the possibility that a returning soldier may just want to be left alone.

What do you think? What am I missing? What else should we be prepared to tell our soldiers?

1 comment:

  1. When asked why I support the Troop treating programs that I do, I often answer

    "many of your military serve for LOVE OF COUNTRY. Wouldn't it be great if their country showed their love and support back?"

    Of course being a "foreigner" (ie Australian) saying that occasionally gives me more flack - but yeah - appreciation for service rendered and safety ensured. Should be one of the basic points of a society



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