Monday, August 24, 2009

2nd Tour, Hope I Dont Die

If you want to get a little bit of a sense of what the wars are like in Afghanistan and Iraq — a small, distant sense of the on-the-ground horror — pick up a book of color photos called, “2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die.” It’s chilling.

Most Americans have conveniently put these two absurd, obscene conflicts out of their minds. There’s an economy to worry about and snappy little messages to tweet. Nobody wants to think about young people getting their faces or their limbs blown off. Or the parents, loaded with antidepressants, giving their children and spouses a final hug before heading off in a haze of anxiety to their third or fourth tour in the war zones.

The book is the work of the photographer Peter van Agtmael, who has spent a great deal of time following American combat troops in both countries. One of the photos in the book shows an Army captain standing exhausted and seemingly forlorn on the blood-slicked floor of a combat support hospital in Baghdad. Mr. van Agtmael was sensitive to the heavy psychological load borne by the medical personnel, writing in the caption:

“Their humor was dark and their expressions often flat and distant when they treated patients. The worst casualties were given nicknames. One soldier melted by the fire caused by an I.E.D. blast was called ‘goo man.’ But certain casualties would hit home, especially injured children. Some staff resorted to painkillers and other drugs.”

The war in Afghanistan made sense once but it doesn’t any longer. The war in Iraq never did. And yet, with most of the country tuned out entirely, we’re still suiting up the soldiers and the Marines, putting them on planes and sending them off with a high stakes (life or death) roll of the dice.

“2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die.”

Or maybe it’s the third tour, or fourth, or fifth. The book’s title came from graffiti scrawled on a wall at an Air Force base in Kuwait that was one of the transit points for troops heading to Iraq. America’s young fighting men and women have to make these multiple tours because the overwhelming majority of the American people want no part of the nation’s wars. They don’t want to serve, they don’t want to make any sacrifices here on the home front — they don’t even want to pay the taxes that would be needed to raise the money to pay for the wars. We just add the trillions to deficits that stretch as far as the eye can see.

To the extent that we think about the wars at all, it’s just long enough to point our fingers at the volunteers and say: “Oh yeah, great. You go. And if you come back maimed or dead we’ll salute you as a hero.”

And what are we sending them off to? There’s a photo of Nick Sprovtsoff, a sergeant from Flint, Mich., lying awake in his bunk at a patrol outpost in Afghanistan. He looks like a tough guy in the picture, but he also looks worried. The caption says:

“On his third tour, he was there to advise a local platoon of the Afghan army. The Afghan soldiers rarely wanted to patrol, preferring to watch DVDs and smoke hash. Their favorite movie was ‘Titanic.’ ”

(A Page 1 headline in Sunday’s New York Times read, “Marines Fight With Little Aid From Afghans.”)

A clear idea of the pathetic unwillingness of the American people to share in the sacrifices of these wars can be gleaned from a comment that President Obama made in his address last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We are a country of more than 300 million Americans,” he said. “Less than 1 percent wears the uniform.”

The president was not chiding those who are not serving, he was only intending to praise those who are. But the idea that so few are willing to serve at a time when the nation is fighting two long wars is a profound indictment on the society.

If we had a draft — or merely the threat of a draft — we would not be in Iraq or Afghanistan. But we don’t have a draft so it’s safe for most of the nation to be mindless about waging war.

Instead of winding down our involvement in Afghanistan, we’re ratcheting it up. President Obama told the V.F.W. that fighting the war there is absolutely essential. “This is fundamental to the defense of our people,” he said.

Well, if this war, now approaching its ninth year, is so fundamental, we should all be pitching in. We shouldn’t be leaving the entire monumental burden to a tiny portion of the population, sending them into combat again, and again, and again, and again ...

Bob Herbert
The New York Times


Chronic said...

Before 9/11 conventional wisdom said that the United States no longer had the stomach for prolonged wars.

However, the length and nature of today’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to suggest that very few Americans are sitting at the dinner table languishing over these protracted conflicts. Moreover, Americans seem to have a certain nonchalance and obliviousness concerning its future military requirements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and globally.

In the U.S., it often seems only one war results in introspection and debate, and that is the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War was the last war which really affected every American regardless of political or socio-economic status. In the 2004 Presidential race the Vietnam War, and the debate over Swift-boating and allegations about one’s war record seemed to play a larger role in the election then either of the wars which the United States was currently engaged in.

Did the end of the draft, and the beginning of an all volunteer force dissolve society’s relationship with the military? What is the status of civil-military relations today? Is watching the movie the Hurt Locker, a recent movie about Army explosive ordnance soldiers, as close as Americans can get to feeling like a nation at war?

At West Point one of the most spirited debates I witnessed as a cadet revolved around a discussion concerning civil-military relations. The discussion and questions raised in that class have increasing relevance as the duration of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have lasted longer than the combined time which the United States was engaged in fighting during World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

The questions raised should not be confused with shouldering burdens, as the recession’s impact has been felt far and widespread amongst many Americans who are struggling to put food on the table and find jobs.

Moreover, the new G.I. Bill, the first lady’s outspoken commitment to military families, and the overall support by Americans for the troops has been incredible. But can Americans honestly say this country is at war, when less than one percent of the country wages war? Perhaps the blanket support for troops is merely a coping mechanism for Americans in order to wash away any psychological discomfort for not feeling more involved in the nation’s supposed wars.

If this is the case, then the country could be entering an era of persistent conflict, not because of the threats the U.S. faces, but rather because society has become inoculated to the concept of the ever-present war. Are Americans less averse to war as long as it means not me or my family?

But Americans cannot feel guilty for not feeling at war when the nation has not even officially declared war. Or perhaps this undeclared state of war is just an extension of society’s general disconnect with the military, or awkwardness with being at war but not feeling at war? Worse yet, do we not declare war so we can conveniently support wars we are winning, while also allowing us the flexibility to move out of conflicts which are difficult and necessary but do not receive favorable press?

Since leaving that class that day, my classmates and I have debated these questions in our heads for years. There seems to be no clear-cut answer, and sometimes the answers seem too hard to confront. But from the class, I now realize why the instructor always stressed that it was important to leave the ego in the hallways. Because presuming one had the answers and not listening to others, was a clear sign of moral and intellectual laziness.

Moreover, I now realize how my instructor felt when he started raising his numerous pointed questions to the classroom. He had all the questions, but he also had none of the answers.

-Tim Hsia
The US Army

md said...

It's pretty amazing how people won't, or some simply can't, face the truth of the state of the world. War as a single word has been completed dulled of its horrific meaning. It's unfortunate that people are, for the most part, only reminded of the war (and briefly I might add) in the news. The disconnect really is obvious.

If I didn't turn on the TV on any given day, I wouldn't know we were at war. There is nothing I see, hear, or interact with in my daily life that even hints at our current military status. Our surface-level society focuses on everything BUT war.

Some time in the last year, I was watching current videos that had been recorded by soldiers. I remember that as my wife walked into the room, the video was showing 3 military vehicles moving through a populated city street. She sat down next to me, probably thinking that I was watching the news, when all of the sudden a civilian threw an explosive at one of the vehicles, making it practically detonate into nothing. My wife immediately started screaming,"Oh my god, why did they do that?!" Her question made me nauseous. I remember aggressively firing back, "What the FUCK do you think war is?!"

Some people just haven't seen it and have no perception of it.