On December 15th President Barack Obama welcomed home U.S. troops from a war he once had called “dumb.” His speech avoided the reasons why the Iraq War was fought and focused instead on honoring the American servicemen and women who fought it. Inspiring words–“extraordinary achievement,” “honor,” “sacrifice,” “finest fighting force,” “unbroken line of heroes,” “progress of human freedom and dignity,” and “success”–far outshone the brief reference to the accomplishment of “leaving behind a “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq with a representative government elected by its people.”[i] At a time when public support for the Iraq War is low and regard for the military high, the president’s remarks made political sense. The speech, however, contributed to what veterans call the “disconnect” between the way civilians see war and they experience it.
“The tear that goes through the social fabric from us is real,” said an Iraq War veteran during a recent program called “Visions of War” held in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Through art, poetry, films, and discussion, generations of veterans expressed their thoughts and feelings about war. Whether they had enlisted or were drafted, they said they wanted to serve their country. Several mentioned a family tradition of military service. Some, inspired by such films as Black Hawk Down (2002) and Band of Brothers (2001), desired to be a part of an elite force. A few said they served in order to obtain a college education. Many said they wanted to help people. Their art and poetry made an attempt to come to terms with the difference between what they thought war would be and what it was.
The veterans who had believed that through military service they would be part of a humanitarian effort felt conflicted. When a member of the Illinois National Guard drove supply trucks out of Kuwait into Iraq, he read a sign that said watch out for children in the road. At the same time his unit was ordered not to stop for children in the road. The consequences of following that order haunt him. A former high school cheerleader enlisted in the army because she wanted to be a linguist; at age nineteen she guarded convoys by aiming a machine gun at everyone on the streets. Back home, she broke down at a stop sign when she envisioned aiming her weapon at the grandmother and child waiting to cross. Instead of helping the Iraqis, they felt they had done harm. “I went to your home,” wrote a veteran/artist. “I went inside, soiled your rug and bullied your children.”[ii] One artist noted that although most online news photographs of troops interacting with Iraqis showed those exchanges to be benevolent, he recalled that he and his fellow troops dismissively viewed everyone “not us” as “hajji,” including Iraqi civilians, insurgents, and third country nationals. President Obama, he concluded, had become the first black man to carry out the white man’s burden.
The bonds of service united veterans, but not always in ways they expected. There were sacrifices, betrayals, and absurdities. A former Eagle Scout said that being a medic in Iraq was “the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” but he cannot hide his fury when he recalls that his six-man security patrol was given three sets of body armor. A former sergeant who felt responsible for taking care of his troops is especially disturbed that one in three women in the U.S. military are sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers. A university student said the holidays were the hardest. He remembers one Thanksgiving he spent in Afghanistan eating a pop tart without frosting while picking up dead bodies. Without frosting, I repeat to myself. He doesn’t like it when a poet mentions that on average 18 veterans commit suicide every day. He worries that civilians think veterans are unstable.
According to an October 2011 Pew Research Center survey, large majorities of recent veterans are proud of their service and say they have learned to appreciate life more. At the same time, half say that their service has had a negative impact on their marriage or relationship, 25 percent report having post-traumatic stress disorder, and one in three say they sometimes feel like they do not care about anything.[iii] A Vietnam veteran, awarded three purple hearts during his four months in combat which ended when enemy artillery killed every other man in his squad, said that for a time when he returned home after two years in military hospitals, he “was an asshole.” Listeners are stunned when they realize he feels apologetic about his behavior. Several veterans commented on the amount of medication handed out by the military and the Veterans Administration or how often they and their buddies self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. A 90-year old World War II veteran, who served as a Third Army medic doing 12-hour shifts during the Battle of the Bulge, repeats the phrase “human carnage.” He says it again when he recalls following behind Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley when, appalled at the piles of executed bodies left behind by the retreating Germans, they toured Ohrdorf, the first concentration camp liberated by U.S. forces. His eyes are filled with grief as he listens to the current generation of veterans. He fears they have a lifetime of nightmares ahead.
Upon their return, many veterans observed that they were shocked by the contrast between the affluence, commercialization, militarism, and indifference to the war in the United States and the poverty, ancient culture, destruction, dark humor, monotony, and rage they witnessed overseas. One is confused when he realizes he felt more at home in Iraq. Another said he spent his return to college sitting in the back of the classroom with his hood pulled over his head refusing to say a word. Others cannot stop talking. The veterans who participated in “Visions of War” would be the first to say that they do not speak for all. Their voices confirm and challenge the heroic image of U.S. forces extolled by President Obama. Their ideals about service, helping people, and the bonds of comradeship survive, but are no longer so clear. They are disoriented. In the old meaning of the word, they have turned from the east; in the current meaning, they are uncertain about their direction and unsure about what is true.
What I saw and heard about the “disconnect” experienced by U.S. veterans made me think about my own research on American war propaganda and that of all of us who study American foreign relations. When a president praises the warriors but not the war, he evades questions about foreign policy objectives, strategic and economic interests, and accountability raised by those veterans who want to make sense of what they have done. One member of the Wisconsin National Guard who learned in Iraq that violence makes you good at your job and keeps you alive said that for him it has been hard to come home and “be normal.” The men and women in military service who carried out U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East can feel estranged from the civilian society on whose behalf they fought. The veterans know that President Obama’s announcement that the United States helped to forge “just and lasting peace” in Iraq is complicated at best. As they seek to reorient themselves—meaning adjust, adopt a new direction—they have much to tell us.
[i] Tom Cohen, CNN, “‘Welcome Home’, Obama tells troops from Iraq,” December 15, 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/12/14/politics/obama-iraq-troops/index.html; for full speech see
[ii] Drew Cameron, “You Are Not My Enemy,” in Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense, ed. Lovella Calica (Barre, VT: Iraq Veterans Against the War, 2008), 55-56.
[iii] Pew Research Center, “The Military-Civilian Gap: War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era,” October 5, 2011, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/2111/veterans-post-911-wars-iraq-afghanistan-civilian-military-veterans