When I was young the older men I knew were World War II veterans. My grandfather. My great uncle Harry. Larry Alvord across the street. They wouldn’t talk much about their experiences unless you asked them. When they did talk about it they were very matter-of-fact. War was scary and often ugly. They were often confused. Sometimes they were bored. But mostly they were just happy they came home alive.
They didn’t have to justify it because it was a manifestly necessary war against a manifestly evil foe. They didn’t have to glorify it because there was, by the time I was around, several decades of books and movies and TV shows and documentaries and lore that did it in their place, often by people who themselves were not involved in the war. Actual World War II veterans who produced such things tended to be a bit more ambivalent about it all.
All of that aside, when I was little, war as I understood it was a pretty straightforward concept: it was bad, but sometimes necessary, and eventually it ended.
There were younger men I knew who were also veterans. My uncle would never talk about his experience in Vietnam. He once got in a car and drove away for hours on the Fourth of July so he didn’t have to be near the firecrackers my cousins and I were setting off.
I also had a teacher who, while not yet 40, had a limp and snowy white hair and who, some parents said, was not always well because, “you know, Vietnam.” He always seemed fine to me, but I always remembered what my friends’ parents said and wondered if he was unwell in some way.
Unlike my grandfather or Larry Alvord across the street, I’d never dare ask my uncle or my teacher about their experiences. It seemed too scary. I began to understand it, though, through books and movies and TV shows and the like. That war was different, I learned.
As the 1980s went on, people began to talk about that war more and more. They began to talk about its mistakes and how its soldiers had been mistreated. But rather than make up for that mistreatment in any substantive way, they began to talk more about how, if we had done things differently, that war could’ve gone differently. People who, again, had nothing to do with that war, began to play-act alternative outcomes to it as a means of trying to make everyone feel better about it all. I’ve always regretted not asking my uncle or my teacher how they felt about all of that.
As all this was going on, our country did a couple of little practice wars. Even as a kid I felt like we did them more to make ourselves feel better than anything else. To make up for losing in Vietnam by putting a quick couple of Ws on the board.
My brother joined the Navy in 1989. In late 1990 his ship was sent to the Red Sea as our country prepared for another war. It’s hard to remember it now since history has declared it such a walkover, but during the run-up to the Gulf War there were predictions that, while U.S. victory was all but certain, the conflict could be protracted and Iraq would nonetheless inflict massive casualties until it was defeated. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski forecast 20,000 casualties. Pat Buchanan predicted 30,000. Ted Kennedy estimated that there would be 3,000 U.S. casualties per week. It was not out of the question that a random ship could be sunk by an Iraqi missile.Not that most people thought too hard about it. For most people, the prelude to the Gulf War played out like the week before the Super Bowl. Cable news assumed the stance of a pregame show. The coming war even had a theme song, by the same guy who did the Monday Night Football theme song. Jingoism ran amok.
I was a senior in high school and I had been awarded an ROTC scholarship. I wasn’t sure I was going to take it, but I visited a couple of college ROTC programs to see how that all worked. On January 16, 1991 my dad and I drove from West Virginia to Columbus. We had an appointment to meet the Ohio State University ROTC commandant the next morning. That night, after we got to our hotel room, the fighting in Kuwait started. Dad and I ate pizza as we watched it unfold in real time. Sometimes CNN would cut to video of a ship firing a missile. We wondered if it was my brother’s ship. We were both worried.
The next morning at the ROTC building we passed a student lounge with a television tuned into the war coverage surrounded by a dozen or so uniformed cadets. Cheers and high fives erupted with each bomb blast and Tomahawk missile strike. The cadets’ glee at the outbreak of war was unnerving.
We went on to meet the Commandant. He was a nice enough fellow but he couldn’t go three sentences without making excited reference to the previous night’s carnage. Since everyone else in the country had suddenly assumed a quasi-military vocabulary and deified military officers as if they were intermediaries carrying forth the word of God, I think he thought all that war chatter would help him sell me on the scholarship and coming up to Ohio State to join his program. I got sick to my stomach as the conversation went on. By the time it was over only he and my dad were talking By the time we left late that morning I knew that I wasn’t going to be taking the ROTC scholarship.
Subsequent history has made the first Gulf War seem almost quaint, not unlike those practice wars in Grenada and Panama. And, sure, I suppose those who predicted thousands of American casualties were way off. How people still manage to gloss over the rank carnage the conflict inflicted, though, still astonishes me all these years later.
Twelve years later our country geared up for war again. Or, I should say, since we had already been fighting in Afghanistan for over a year at that point, our country geared up for a second war. It was in Iraq again. There seemed to be no justification for it at all this time apart from the people in charge of our country simply being hellbent on going to war in Iraq again. They made one up though, inventing the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and were prepared to use them on us. Or something like that.
The war began just before I took off on a month-long road trip. On May 1, 2003 my trip took me to White Sands, New Mexico. At the White Sands Missile Range Museum there’s a boneyard of old missiles, rockets, and bombs. A friend who had joined me for that leg of the trip and I got out and climbed on disarmed weaponry. Just days before the army had finished subduing a foreign country because it allegedly dared to acquire some of their own. That turned out to be a lie. The all-but-empty museum we were visiting had more weapons of mass destruction than all of Iraq did.
That night my friend and I camped just outside of Alamogordo. We listened to a news report on the radio which described how President Bush had, that very day, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, declared that the mission in Iraq had been accomplished. Not long after that guerrilla warfare broke out and an insurgency ramped up. The vast majority of casualties of the Iraq war, both military and civilian, occurred after the mission had, allegedly, been accomplished.
I found out I was going to be a father for the first time when I was in the middle of the road trip I was on at the time the Iraq War kicked off. Today I drove my son — my second child, who was born more than two years after the “Mission Accomplished” banner flew — to a job interview.
On the way there he, aware of the United States’ assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, made some nihilistic “World War III” jokes, the sorts you probably saw floating around on social media today. I told him it wasn’t a laughing matter. Chastened, he then more soberly wondered whether any of the kids he goes to high school with will be fighting in Iran or Iraq in a couple of years. It was a good question.
We’ve been at war, continuously, since before my kids were born. My kids who are now interviewing for jobs and thinking about what colleges they’ll apply to. War that no one in power ever seems to seriously question. War that has killed millions and has cost trillions. War, a thirst for which those in power remain insatiable to this day.
War that, unlike the war of my grandfather and Larry Alvord across the street, no one seems to acknowledge is bad, no one ever asks if it was necessary, and one which will apparently never end.
A war we have all tacitly agreed that we will never seriously question because, somehow, we have convinced ourselves that to do so would be to once again mistreat my uncle and my teacher who went to Vietnam 50 years ago.
War based on the same arguments and lies and disingenuous prognostications which have been repeated and which have been proven wrong for two decades but about which no one learns anything.
I sometimes feel like I’m the only one aware of how ridiculous and absurd and tragic obscene all of this is. I’m not, of course. People see it and know it and feel it and have felt pain from it. Millions of them. Pain that almost no one in this country will ever feel and will never acknowledge.
Certainly no one in power will ever feel it. No one with the power to stop it. Those people are immune from the consequences of our forever war and are immune from learning a damn thing. It’s a game to them and their surrogates and their cheerleaders. A domestic political problem at best, but one far easier to deal with than almost any other political problem because war is the only topic, it seems, on which both parties can find common ground. Everyone, to some degree or another, is for it. They dare not be.
I’m not for it. I’m tired of it. I’m disgusted by it. I’m disillusioned by it. It’s impossibly sad and stupid. It’s a ride I want off of. It’s a nightmare from which I desperately wish I could wake. A nightmare that has now lasted most of my lifetime. And I am not a particularly young man.