My favorite childhood game was WAR. I was born in 1949, and by the time I was ten, only fifteen years after the end of WW II, I think I played WAR every day. Complete with stick guns and rocks for grenades, the children in our suburban working class neighborhood fought the Germans we called “Krauts” and fended off the Japanese we called “Japs” with ferocious tenacity. Most of our parents were Veterans. My best friend’s father earned the Distinguished Flying Cross piloting a B-29 bomber over the Pulaski Oil Fields in Europe. My father served in the Pacific and my friend Eddie Golden – his father was wounded at Normandy.
Hollywood bolstered images of glory with the Audie Murphy story and the Longest Day was my favorite childhood movie. As a child playing war you would get shot, fall down, count to ten and then pop back up with stick gun blazing. Such childhood games strengthened our courage and our capacity to distinguish between right and wrong. The enemy was clearly identified, the goal fully understood and the outcome assured. Then came Vietnam and much of our fighting force were draftees and the political goals ambiguous at best. My friends and family were conscripted to fight an unpopular war that was now brought into our homes with the advent of television. It didn’t take long for the national resolve on Vietnam to collapse before a skeptical world. Our soldiers came home and there were no celebrations or flags thanking them for their service. In fact their service was often ridiculed and many veterans felt some shame or rejection by their country.
Now we have a volunteer army engaged in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current volunteer army is made up of recruits that remember 9/11 and want to be part of the national effort to extract our pound of flesh. Forget failed policy or ineptness in execution by our policy leaders; let’s focus for a few moments on the tip-of-the-spear. The combat infantry soldier in the most remote and dangerous post in Afghanistan faces a war of insurgency that requires tactics and firepower that stagger the imagination. After a year of being embedded with a battle hardened platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, Sebastian Junger published his account of the daily existence of the combat infantry soldier in his new book, War.
When understood from the perspective of the daily foot soldier engaged in combat – war is an adrenaline rush unparalleled in our development as males. I say males, because current US Policy prohibits women from serving in front line combat units. Make no mistake about it – women are dying in these wars and paying a huge price as they support the combat unit. Junger discovered that combat is not about the big picture or advancing some noble policy conceived in Washington, it is about taking care of your brother. There is choreography in combat that enables you to address your fears, creates the capacity to kill and then to finally demonstrate a love that is comparable to our language of faith – he laid down his life for another.
Junger describes relationships that were strained and men who simply did not like each other, but when the firefight started, they become a seamless unit and will exhibit all manner of behavior that to us is courageous but to them is only natural. They would do anything to save the very person they were fighting or hated hours before. When a member of this volunteer army serving at the tip-of-the-spear in combat describes the reasons for enlistment, it is often escape from abusive families, the law or failed relationships. Also, for many it was about taking it to the people that destroyed the Twin Towers or threatened the security of our Country. It isn’t policy – it is street justice – when punched we will punch back and punch back with a force unparalleled in the history of warfare.
I have never been in combat. I don’t want to assume I have any grasp of what a combat platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan endures. Three or four firefights a day and then weeks of boredom, eating one hot meal a day if you were lucky characterizes the routine of the combat infantry soldier. They go months between showers and clean clothes. I have had several near-death experiences that spiked or caused a physiological response that is similar. Yet, I have never had to live with the day-in and day-out experience of a deployment in a combat zone. Combat has got to be the single most persistently terrifying experience of any organized community.
Afghanistan is a war that has not required much of us living at home. I have had two former students and one former family friend killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Two were killed by an IED and the other was killed in an ambush and shot nine times. I have tried to imagine their deaths and the intense environment that defined their lives before they were killed. I can see them in the classroom where I once taught them and the living room where they once played. I can’t quite get there emotionally to understand the pain, the isolation or the fear that defined their existence in a remote village or community in Iraq or Afghanistan. Junger’s book took me as close as I can get sitting in an easy chair in Alexandria, Virginia.
These soldiers fight because they are told to – they fight because the act of combat takes them psychologically to a place and a “rush” that is unequaled in their journey. They volunteer or go willingly to a second or a sixth tour. They find brotherhood and purpose in protecting inches of territory in remote parts of the world. When they come home they will bring all that baggage with them. I am not sure we are ready for their return. However, the sooner we bring them home the stronger they will be, the better we will be as a nation and frankly, the more secure we will be as a nation.
As I read Junger’s book, I felt shame for not understanding, anger for failure to advocate for our veterans and a resolve to begin working to make our nation more secure by getting the hell out of Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible. For us as a nation, the collateral damage of this war will be the men and women who fight it and return home to a nation that hardly noticed they went.
Today two more American men were killed in Afghanistan – fifty-nine killed in the month of June. If we civilians could somehow get inside the bubble of combat – then perhaps there would be less need for combat. Bad guys will continue to threaten us and we will continue to send our youth into the fire – but what a price we pay for our failure to build bridges instead of walls.
To the combat veteran hunkered down this evening behind some sandbag in a remote part of Afghanistan eating one more MRE – thank you – and never has an expression of thanks seemed so inadequate.
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