For years, the U.S. public has been conditioned by the mainstream media to reverentially treat veterans as “heroes” deserving our utmost respect and eternal gratitude. Few words are more overused in our culture than “heroes”. But if veterans have been defending our true national interests, a questionable assumption, then fairness suggests we should “make them whole” after they return. So, what do we owe them?
The Iraq War has left a legacy of death, shattered limbs and lives, disabling PTSD for some, and deep disillusionment. The War cost 4,500 American lives, 300 coalition lives, and even George Bush admitted the loss of at least 100,000 Iraqi lives. Returning troops have higher than average rates of drug abuse, divorce, and suicide. The U.S. is facing a costly multigenerational recovery from the War that will continue to wreak havoc with many veterans and their families.
The U.S. media has relentlessly driven home the point that our soldiers protect our freedoms but the truth is the War was a misguided attempt to stabilize oil prices. Bin Laden and other “Islamo-terrorists” never broadly threatened U.S. shores. They were surprised as much as we were that jets could bring down large skyscrapers. What our soldiers really needed was a clear mission that explained how our way of life—not just oil prices—was directly threatened by other nations or terrorists. Instead, what they were given were lies consisting of pseudo-patriotic propaganda. And most of them bought it.
The mainstream media continues to portray veterans as next to godly. Soldiers have been increasingly deified as religious fervor of the 1980s has waned. After serial disillusionments from the Catholic Church and evangelical TV preachers, reverential music on television is reserved for our military personnel. Hushed tones and swelling strings in the background often accompanies news stories on returning vets. The media has played a pivotal role in encouraging naïve young people to volunteer for what for many has turned out to be the biggest mistake of their life. Still, individuals are responsible for their decisions and so must be held culpable. Veterans are no exception.
Why do people go to war? In World War II the answer was obvious: the bad guys were on a rampage and really did threaten our way of life. In the Vietnam War, preventing the dominoes from falling and the draft motivated many. So, why did so many people, all volunteers, go this time? Many were persuaded by the WMD lies of Bush administration, or a misplaced sense of patriotism, or a BMOC cachet, especially true for young people who often received little respect from their families and communities.
But for many the underlying rationale was economic. Beginning in the 1980s, hopes for a good quality blue collar life slipped away with the decline of manufacturing. The national shift to a service-based economy brought declining wages and fewer opportunities for real advancement. As jobs prospects dwindled, many found that the military offered relatively promising prospects. Many young people, and an increasingly large swath of an older, job-hungry population, saw a career with the military, or a military contractor, as a job with a future. Once the economically-driven choice was made it was tempting to cloak the decision with a patriotic veneer. A single life decision gave direction to many in financial limbo and added a sense of fulfillment in being viewed as a patriot.
Paradoxically, winding down the Iraq War has sharply curtailed government spending in an economy in decline, especially in manufacturing, and returning vets have just added to the rolls of the jobless. Returning veterans face much higher unemployment rates than average. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate for veterans has risen to more than 12.1 percent in the past year. For the youngest veterans, aged 18 to 24, the jobless rate was 30.4 percent in October of this year and a striking 48.0 percent for young black veterans.
The transition from an economically sheltered life in the military to a brutal domestic job market is especially challenging. Our Iraq soldiers are disproportionately from the south, more come from rural areas, are blacker than the general population, and more likely to be married. None of these demographic groups were favored during the financial industry boom of the last decade. The collapse of the housing and construction industries brought the end of any hope for good times. The return to record high unemployment has been a shock for many.
Contrary to much of what we hear in the media, the time spent in the military does not prepare most vets for stateside employment. The myth of transferable skills is exactly that—a myth. Getting shot at is not a job skill. And medics, for example, are not certified to do the same job in the civilian workforce after leaving the military.
So, what do we owe our returning vets? After their military mission has ended, do we owe them good jobs, for example?
Bridging the gap between military skills and civilian skills is very difficult for many returnees so the question arises of how the government might help. A new bill favoring returning vets has support from many Democrats and even some Republicans. If passed by Congress, the Hire Heroes Act would give tax incentives to businesses that hire unemployed veterans. Perhaps legislation encouraging the hiring of veterans amounts to compensatory damages for the harm inflicted on them and their families, a part of the price that we as a nation pay for the Wars.
But it’s not only veterans who have suffered during our four-year economic meltdown. Suffering has been widespread and persistent as reflected in the huge numbers of long-term unemployed, most of them not vets. Extended bouts of no work are no fun for anyone.
During the Iraq war years military workers did relatively well, at least economically. For many, military pay—a steady check, housing allowances, signup bonuses for repeated tours, etc.—was much more than they would have received if they had not volunteered for the war and instead remained unemployed here at home. Their voluntary participation in the military and their economic advantages over many similarly situated non-vets, however temporary, makes it difficult to argue they should continue to be preferentially favored over other American workers.
If not jobs, what do we owe our returning vets?
Not as much as it might appear at first, at least from listening to a fawning, self-serving media. As with Vietnam, because of our culpability in supporting the War we owe most of them understanding and perhaps forgiveness, but not praise. Their tragedy is really our tragedy. Their sins are our sins.
For vets, the personal moral choice of going to war was highly questionable. Although there was wide agreement that Saddam was truly a bad guy and an Iraqi government free of his influence was desirable for many reasons, he was no worse than many other tyrants and despots the U.S. has supported under our post-WWII realpolitik foreign policies. Even the most idealistic and naïve among the Iraq volunteers must have suspected that Abu Ghraib, and the other incidents that WikiLeaks offered us a window on, were not isolated incidents. But they went anyway.
In early 2012 it seems very likely that the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd factions in Iraq will not combine to form a permanent united government. Little has been gained by a protracted U.S. military presence there and an Iraqi civil war in 2003 would have been long over by now if we had not artificially kept the sides apart. Hopefully, we or the volunteer soldiers won’t make the same arrogant mistake again.
As soldiers have been portrayed positively in the media, a particular focus has been on their “sacrifice”. Yes, many did sacrifice, sometimes with their lives. Some veterans undoubtedly deserve our respect for doing more good than harm. Others, though, deserve our condemnation for the crimes they committed while in Iraq. As with other wars we will never know the damage many of them have done so they will suffer in silence. Individually, some of our “heroes” must quietly accept responsibility for the needless suffering they inflicted on their own families and Iraq’s non-violent innocents. Except for healing their physical and psychological wounds, it is difficult to justify any preferential treatment for our returning veterans.
(Please understand that this diary was very difficult for me to write. However, the volunteers, and those that supported them, should accept moral responsibility for their tragic mistake. If we are a truly moral people, and that is the deep question each of us must answer, then we cannot condone the million souls who died futilely in Vietnam, or the 100,000+ dead in Iraq, or the 20,000+ died so far in Afghanistan. Even though we lost 4,500 Americans in Iraq, with many more wounded for life, that does not make what we did right and does not justify any future sacrifices for wars of choice. The madness must stop here.)