There are now nearly 2.5 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This new generation joins earlier cohorts of veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War—a community that numbers nearly 22 million.
Despite these sheer numbers and the variety of backgrounds and experiences they reflect, Hedges chooses to reduce the veteran population to a set of caricatures, where we are all either heroes or—more likely—victims. He also reduces our experiences to an overwrought, guilt-ridden, dark version of reality.
War is hell, to be sure, but it is also an incredibly complex endeavor that registers the gamut of human emotions and experiences: the inhumanity of killing without justification; the conflicted act of killing for a just cause or in the name of self-defense; the fear and courage of soldiers and civilians under fire; the elation of surviving the crucible of combat; the tension and betrayal among people caught up in war; the intense love that binds together comrades as they face battle together—a love that knows no equal in the civilian world.
Hedges presents the stories of a few men and women who have come home from war changed, mostly for worse, to prove his point. But his survey is remarkably one-sided. He tells the story of Army 1st Sgt. Perry Jeffries, one of brutality in war and alienation at home. I have known Sgt. Jeffries for several years, and think he provides a fair view from where he sits. Hedges tells the tale of Jessica Goodell, a young woman who joined the Marine Corps out of high school: Goodell eventually came to serve in Iraq as a part of a mortuary affairs unit, assigned to package and send home the bodies of Marines killed in Iraq’s violent Anbar province. Then there is the story of Geoff Millard, who enlisted in the National Guard, and deployed to Iraq in a support role. Though Millard served in a relatively safe position, on a massive base outside of Tikrit, Hedges relays Millard’s account of a checkpoint incident in which four Iraqi civilians were killed. But a careful parsing of the story shows this isn’t even Millard’s story to tell. He heard it from a briefing he attended while sitting in an air-conditioned command post; he relayed it to Hedges, who then relayed it to us. It’s a twice-removed and twice-filtered version of the incident from two people whose feelings towards war are clear. Millard came home from war outraged by it; he started the Washington, DC chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and helped organize the Winter Soldier hearings, a reprise of mock war crimes hearings conducted during the Vietnam War.
These narratives offer a very partial and partisan account of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. This is unfortunate, because their complete story is an important one to tell. As I write in a forthcoming report for the Center for a New American Security, post-9/11 combat and support operations have placed unique stresses on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. They have fought in tight alleyways, on mountain crags, in marshes and deserts; their Humvees have struck improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and their feet have tip-toed around mines and booby traps; they have drunk tea with civilians of shifting loyalties without knowing who is friend or foe; they’ve tried to catch sleep on forward-operating bases shaken by mortar fire and suicide attacks. Further, many of our troops have faced multiple combat deployments, thanks to our decision to fight these wars with a relatively small active and reserve force and to rotate troops by unit rather than individually, the way we did in Vietnam. Today’s conflicts are fought by more husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers than ever before, and their loved ones back home instantly share in their deployment triumphs and tragedies, thanks to ubiquitous Internet connections abroad. The strain of these deployments, and military service generally, has taken a toll on military personnel, their families, and their children. Most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are coming home and thriving, but some are not.
All of their stories deserve to be told. But Hedges does them a disservice by cherry-picking to prop up his views about war, the military, and its culture, which he describes as the province of the “poor and the working class.” In reality, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are a diverse group, and the overwhelming majority are neither heroes nor victims. They are simply men and women who volunteered to serve their country for a variety of reasons; did what they were asked under stressful, austere, and dangerous conditions; and are now moving on with their lives in a nation that is increasingly disconnected from their service and sacrifice.
The real danger in Hedges’ essay is the damage it does to the majority of veterans by portraying us as victims, perpetuating the myth of the damaged, deranged veteran who is a danger to himself and others. Veterans of the Vietnam generation know this as the “Rambo myth,” after the Sylvester Stallone character of the same name. This myth was wrong then and it is wrong today. It leaves questions in civilians’ minds about combat veterans and their mental health, and contributes to an assumption that all combat veterans are victims of their service. This myth contributes to the stigma surrounding combat stress as well, discouraging veterans from getting help and frustrating their efforts to transition into civilian society. And this myth dishonors the service of those who served with distinction, as the majority of veterans do, by casting aspersions on their service and creating the presumption that all veterans did things in combat they regret or are ashamed of.