Note from the Editor: This article is part of The Fletcher Forum’s “Iraq War Special Series” commemorating the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
Most Americans will overlook the ten-year anniversary of the War in Iraq this month. It was a conflict of immeasurable complexity that divided the nation in ways that are still felt to this day. The only thing most Americans agree on is that they are glad the troops have come home and are now safe and sound. Tragically, that is simply not true.
Before this decade of conflict began, the active-duty suicide rate in the military was half that of the civilian population. Since 2001, the suicide rate has more than doubled. Even more disturbing is that these statistics don’t capture the number of veterans who committed suicide after leaving the military. Staggeringly, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that veteran suicides account for roughly one out of five suicides nationally. Suicide is a cost of any war but the conflicts of the past decade have seen twice the number of service members commit suicide than during World War II.
While the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. military commands attempt to solve this pressing problem through counseling and medication, there is a larger cultural issue that the nation must address. The transition from serving in a time of war to becoming a veteran of war is as acute as being exiled from a tribe. But it is made even more challenging by the fact that we veterans return home to a society that claims to admire its veterans but rejects the cause for which we killed, lost friends, and risked our lives.
Americans dangerously dissociated themselves from the aims and management of the war in Iraq. This distancing was perilous because the citizenry provide the ultimate check on the war powers of the President. Even worse, a culture that disowns its country’s policies and politicians has a damning effect on the nation’s ability to heal in the aftermath of armed conflict. Sadly, this neglect has expanded to include the so-called “good war” in Afghanistan.
Veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom remain as conflicted about its justification as any American. However, where the military diverges from society is in its willingness to put aside politics after the decision-making is done in order to serve a greater mission. Steeped in this military ethos and witness to the devastating cost to the Iraqi people of failing at our mission, we understood that while there may have been little justification for the initial invasion there was also no way to justify failure after the war had begun.
Indeed, the enduring cultural legacy of the Iraq conflict is that you can support the troops even if you do not support the war. We have replaced true patriotism with a bromide that is, quite simply, a lie. How can you support me if you oppose everything I did? While we did not face the antagonism forced upon Vietnam War veterans, the indifference we encountered may be a new norm. If this is an improvement, it is an intolerable one that must change.
Society wants to make all veterans into heroes and celebrate our bravery, sacrifice, and service without acknowledging both that this is an impossible ideal and that these traits cannot be disentangled from the cause for which they are harnessed. If this were a harmless lie it would not matter, but the idea that the only obligation you have to your country during war is to thank members of the armed forces for their service is preposterous. Sadly, it reflects the new norm separating the one percent who served from the rest of society.
There is a fine line between jingoism and patriotism but the nation has gone too far to the side of disowning national policy. While not all wars will be just, we cannot deny that once war is initiated we must strive to make the best of a terrible situation both at home and abroad. Conscientious objection by citizens has a critical role to play in our country’s decision-making, but knowing the terrible costs of war, it’s simply not enough to say you oppose it. You must do something to stop it.
While every service member reconciles their conduct in war with their individual morality, a society that collectively opposes or ignores the wars we fight inherently censures our actions as veterans. It’s not enough to recognize the human cost of war; society must also sanction what we are forced to do in combat. If war is politics by other means, then certainly the only justification for killing is a noble end.
If you want to support the troops, do so by putting the war at the forefront of the national debate. We can disagree about how to best wage the wars we fight but we should at least be talking about them. The war isn’t over and we can’t pretend that it is.
We’ve already lost too many veterans to suicide and alienation but there are still thousands of troops yet to return from the ongoing war in Afghanistan. While we cannot change the past, it’s critical that we reengage with the veterans who continue to come home to ensure that their sacrifices will not be in vain. And if we’re successful, then maybe we can make it just a little easier for the next generation to return from war.