I have been hemming and hawing and fretting about this matter for years now, and I’ve been afraid to write about it publicly because I want to do it justice and I’m worried that my writing just won’t be up to par. But I’m going to do it now because it deserves to be done: THANK YOU, TROOPS, FOR YOUR SERVICE IN THE WARS.
I don’t want to make this blog post about me, but I think it’s necessary to provide a little context in order to adequately express my appreciation.
I have given serious thought to going into the military. I will always feel guilt–appropriate guilt, I think–for not serving alongside other members of my generation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I am working class; a lot of my high school acquaintances went into the military. Most of the men in my family served, including my father. My mother worked for many years at the VA hospital.
When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, I was a very young undergrad. I was shocked at the notion of meaningful military intervention–the 1990s, post USSR, were a sleepy time for foreign policy, and it seemed inconceivable that we’d go to war with anyone. War? What for? Nothing on earth was a realistic threat to us.
I was uneasy about military strikes towards Afghanistan–I loathed the Taliban way before 9/11 because of their human rights abuses and oppression of women, but I was worried about the carnage war would bring to the civilian population. They were so poor and defenseless. I was totally against the invasion of Iraq. It was predicated on a fucking fraud. I wrote opinion columns against in in my local papers, I went to anti-war marches in NYC, Washington DC, Sacramento, San Francisco, other places. I was involved in activist organizations to prevent that, and stop it once it happened.
However, it happened, as we all know. And it kept happening. And it did not stop. I kept hating it.
Eventually, the first round of soldiers came home. I taught several of them at my last University. They were in a program to earn their Bachelor’s degrees so that they could become officers. Some of them had scars–physical scars, that I could see for myself.
The war went on and on. Around 2007, it occurred to me that the war could last forever. That a population of my generation was fighting it, and that they would never be the same afterwards. I mean, it wasn’t a short tidy military operation–the youth, my PEERS, were going there and serving multiple tours of duty and making a tremendous sacrifice of their directions of life. The military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were affecting their entire lives, and the lives of their families. Time that they could never get back. And what they were witnessing, being exposed to–fucking roadside bombs! Brain injuries! Limbs blown off!
It stopped being about politics for me, and started to be…a sense of responsibility to my generation. I started to think: holy shit–when I’m 50 years old and at a barbecue, there is going to be a person there who spent most of his youth, like 10 years, in Iraq. And what did I do during that time? Pursue my college degrees? Fucking aggrandize myself and my potential progeny at the expense of the taxpayers (I am a scholarship and fellowship student–I have incurred almost no debt for my education. I am blessed.)?
How am I going to look this person in the eyes? What have I done? Because it’s not about whether this war was right or wrong at this point. It’s about the fact that MY PEERS went to fight it and were kept there to fight it and stayed to fight it, and practically all that time, I was studying–for free!–and getting degrees that will presumably give me a comfortable living eventually–for free! And they are fucking dragging their asses around Basra in 108* temperatures with thirty lbs. of body armor on and their families are worried sick about them and their lives are on hold and they can never really come back home again. Not really, not where it counts. I’m not saying that being in war damages a person and I would never presume to speak for the servicemen/servicewomen and their experience, not ever, but from the people I know personally who served, even in peacetime: it changed them. For good or for bad, it changed them. And the least that I, and society, can do, is fucking acknowledge that.
I hear some people say, “Well, it’s a volunteer army!” As if signing up for it dismisses whatever sacrifices they have to make. What an awful attitude that is. They do it so we don’t get drafted. They are workers. They have rights. If they are hurt, they are our responsibility They are our responsibility even if they don’t get hurt. Think about what they are required to do. War is murder. Do you learn how to do murder at your job? At age 18-25, no less!
My father served during Vietnam. Voluntarily. He didn’t go to Vietnam–for whatever reason, the military sent him back to Germany and South Korea. He did multiple tours. Later, he always said, “I feel very guilty that I never served in Vietnam.” I could never understand this. GUILTY? He didn’t even agree with Vietnam, politically. Why feel guilty? Sounded to me like he lucked out! Thank your lucky stars! Who in hell would want to go to Vietnam?
Now, I understand. Now I understand.
People paid. They paid for things that they did not do. Their families paid, their children paid, their communities paid. Society paid. The Vietnamese paid. Boy, did they ever pay.
Last year, at this time, I was stranded at an airport in Phoenix, Arizona. The terminal was clogged with dozens of servicemen, also stranded. After much hemming and hawing, I approached a cluster of them, and said: “Excuse me, Sirs, but I would like to buy you all a drink as a token of appreciation for your service to our country.”
The humble aw-shucks look on their faces was so touching. They said that they could not drink because they were wearing their uniforms. I thought this was preposterous–who ever heard of soldiers that could not drink!? Totally absurd, right? Soldiers been drinking since Roman times–it’s like a joke!
Anyway, they invited me to sit with them and one of them showed me photos on his laptop computer. He grew up in a town close to me. He was in the Navy; had joined the navy even though he’d never seen the ocean before he enlisted. He was a teenager. I remember how fresh his skin was–how clear and dewy.
When I finally got home, it was early morning, and there were families waiting in the airport with WELCOME HOME signs for their returning solders. Flowers. Babies. Passing them, I started to weep.
I should have done more. We should do more.