Thank you for your service.
The woman spoke the words with a smile, like a catechism, eyes flicking from the long line of soldiers to her children, watching to make sure they saw the rite performed. Her words were lost in the clapping and cheering that echoed through Atlanta International Airport as every civilian in the concourse stopped to wave and shout encouragement for the long camouflaged line that marched past on our way back to Hell. My anger was a living thing as I marched, hating every one of them because they thought their thirty seconds of patriotism absolved them of our collective responsibility.
Two weeks ago, I’d been lying on a beach with my then-girlfriend, now wife. And two weeks before that, I’d held a blown-up child in my arms, fighting alongside medics to keep him alive, his brain fluid sticky on my hands. And now I was headed back, my leave over, back to Nangarhar Province in Eastern Afghanistan to fight in a war. I’d been told by a Provincial Reconstruction Team Commander that the Pentagon projected this war to go on for decades if we wanted to “win”. More leave-takings, more trips to the sandbox, more children torn apart. Decades more.
But none of the civilians that day knew any of that and, as I got on the plane, I wondered if they cared to know. Thank you for your service. We went wheels-up, back to war, and they drank lattes and bought the latest iPods and put yellow ribbon magnets on their cars, and meanwhile a nineteen-year-old gunner had his legs blown off from a VBIED and bled out while his medic buddy, a teenager himself, frantically tried and failed to save his life.
I joined the Army National Guard in 2004, after my first semester in college, looking to do something more meaningful with my life and convinced, as only the young can be, that I could play a role in a conflict I was becoming increasingly suspicious about. By the time 2007 came around, I knew I didn’t want to go to Iraq, the war we’d been led to believe was to prevent nuclear war but turned out to be about fear and greed and power.
Afghanistan, though, that was what led to 9/11, and that was the war that seemed legitimate, worth fighting for. So I was excited when I found out we were going there. Less so when I realized my infantry platoon was tasked not with kinetic actions (combat) but to be the SecFor (security force) for a mix of Civilian Affairs, Civil Engineers, DoD/S, and the like, but I’d get to see what we were fighting for close up. I’d get to do my part.
My part was pretty boring, as it turned out: riding behind a .50 cal machine gun or automatic grenade launcher, twisting back and forth in my turret while waiting for the always-present IED to send molten shrapnel through my body. Pretty boring.
Except when it wasn’t.
Like when we went out to interrogate suicide bombers or ID the parts left after they detonated themselves. Like when the Taliban beat a mentally-disabled child, strapped an explosive-laden backpack on his back, and sent him into a packed District Center. That’s when I discovered that brain fluid smells like rotten bananas. And that I’d be expected to kill the next child with a suicide vest that approached our convoys. Gone were the days of handing out pencils and paper and shooting the shit with children who spoke English as well as I did. Now I studied their movements, where their eyes lingered, what they wore, always ready to go through the escalation of force procedure (shout, show your weapon, show you’re going to shoot, shoot to warn, shoot to kill) if they looked to be coming too close.
After months of constant missions outside the wire (ten days on, a day off, eight days on, two off, rinse and repeat), we’d all become hardened, dissociated from the daily act of survival required out there: contemplating for hours the killing of men, women, and (forgive me) children. I remember running into a few guys from my company in Bagram on my way back from leave and we grabbed chow together, exchanging stories about bodies and missing parts we’d seen, IEDs and near misses, the question of whether a sheep was shot up by a Taliban or a bored Kiowa gunship and who had to pay reparations for it. A young Air Force Lieutenant interrupted our conversation then, asking if we’d been outside the wire. We all acknowledged we had and he nodded thoughtfully, commenting with a sense of wonder that we talked so casually about blood and death and dying while eating spaghetti with meat sauce and the shriveled iceberg lettuce salad and greasy garlic bread that came with it. It was our turn to be surprised then, but I also remember the feeling that came with it: satisfaction.
I’d become a veteran.
My war ended just before Thanksgiving, as our team transitioned out and another replaced us. I came back home and back to my old life, with a full two semesters of college left before graduation. A short month later, I was sitting in 8 a.m. classes with students (children, really) who complained about having to wake up early. I thought about my 3:30 a.m. wake-ups to call home for a few minutes before we rolled out… and said nothing. I’d been one of those kids; now I wasn’t. A month before, I’d been in a turret and everyone on the street obeyed my command, an arbiter of life and death. Now I sat in a classroom where no one seemed to grasp the utter simplicity and simultaneous complexity of life, war, and death. It never occurred to them to try.
When I mentioned I’d just returned from Afghanistan, I got a few looks, raised eyebrows, or (always from dudes with too much testosterone and not enough sense) oblique hints at trying to determine if I’d killed anyone. But no one cared about the war — how it was going, why we were there. And the adults weren’t much better. It was startling how rote their replies were: Thank you for your service. And then, automatic Hail Mary said and atonement complete, they moved on.
I understand why people thank veterans for their service. At its purest, least cynical form, it’s a way to acknowledge, be it ever so small, the sacrifice that person went through on behalf of our democracy. It can take other forms as well: patriotism, regret for the way veterans of other wars were treated, or simply out of discomfort about what to say.
But it also serves to put up walls. Your service. Distance. Not mine. It is also a way to ignore the truth of that service. To ignore the questions that come with it. There are many, and none of them are comfortable or easy to answer. If we went to Iraq for WMDs and there were none…. What does that mean? What is our collective responsibility? What is the end goal for Afghanistan? Is there a goal at all? Why are we still at war, eighteen years later? We won World Wars faster. What does it all mean? Easier by far to speak the catechism and move on, awkward prodding questions avoided altogether.
On Veteran’s Day, a century and one year after the end of the Great World War and nineteen years after we went to war in Afghanistan, we need to find the courage to begin asking the awkward questions. Instead of free meals on November 11th, we need to figure out why, despite increased efforts, we lose more than 6,000 veterans to suicide every year. Why our VA system continues to fail our troops, despite many of the good people that work there. Why we’ve fought two wars in this century and neither has achieved any lasting progress.
If we are willing to spend trillions to fight a war, we must be prepared to spend trillions more on what comes after. War is trauma, pure and simple. Today, our troops get a few auditorium lectures on what to expect when they go home and are sent back into the civilian world with a page of phone numbers. It’s not enough.
And that trauma of war extends beyond our soldiers to the nations we’ve invaded. Winning is more than military dominance; it’s about securing a future for those nations that ensures peace. As ISIS and the Taliban have shown, our abdication of that responsibility comes with consequences, not just for the millions of people living there but for the world itself. The wars of the twenty-first century are not the behemoths of the previous century’s world wars, but they are no less complex in the geopolitical sense. We should treat them as such. Until we do — until we decide to invest in much the same way our country invested in the Marshall Plan after World War II — we will find ourselves fighting forever wars.
When a country as great as ours fails, it’s because of a lack of will. And in a democracy, it starts at the bottom and carries through right to the top. The all-volunteer army has made it too easy for everyday Americans to shirk their civic and democratic responsibility instead of holding our leaders — their representatives — accountable. If this nation clamored half so loudly to finish the war in Afghanistan as it does every time an NFL player takes a knee, does anyone think we’d still be there? Or if we were, would our troops still be languishing there goalless and forgotten?
A society that outsources its responsibility breeds ills that slowly poison the body itself. And in 2020, is there anyone in America who doesn’t believe our country needs healing? Our veterans are accomplished, diverse team players that come together to achieve great and difficult things and provide an example of a simple truth: We are better together. The divide between civilian and military member is only one symptom of the disease, but curing that ill may be the antidote that heals the rest.
My dream for November 11th is that, rather than thanking me for my service, my fellow citizens also serve: that they join their local volunteer Fire or EMT Company, volunteer at food banks and homeless shelters, staff phone banks and knock on doors for political candidates, attend town halls, write their congressional leaders, ask questions…. Participate in this great democracy. I often think about that dying child I held and I keep thinking that if we all held that child — an innocent life torn apart by shrapnel and politics and violence — and felt their life slip through our fingers, perhaps this world and our choices would be different. If we had no need to thank others, because we were all of us in this together, E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one. I keep thinking that what this country so desperately needs in return for the service of my brothers and sisters is simple, but not easy: It needs us to care.