Monday, November 12, 2007

Honoring Our Veterans

In recognition of our veterans, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece by William Quinn, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. Quinn writes about his return to civilian life after the intensity of serving in a war zone.
The only feeling I've ever had that was more surreal than arriving in a war zone was returning from one.

I came home on R&R in 2005 after eight months in Iraq. Heading for the baggage claim in Detroit, I watched travelers walking and talking on their cellphones, chatting with friends and acting just the way people had before I'd left for Baghdad. The war didn't just seem to be taking place in another country; it seemed to be taking place in another universe. There I was, in desert camouflage, wondering how all the intensity, the violence, the tears and the killing of Iraq could really be happening at the same time that all these people were hurrying to catch their flights to Las Vegas or Los Angeles or wherever.
Now as a student majoring in international politics and security studies at Georgetown, Quinn feels the same disconnect with the war among his peers on campus.
I find it frustrating that Facebook is a bigger part of most students' lives than the war. After my first semester, I decided to rejoin the Army by signing up with the ROTC. I felt a bit guilty for having done only one tour in Iraq while friends of mine have done two or three. And I didn't want to forget the war. I may be prejudiced, but many of my college peers seem self-absorbed. I didn't want to end up like that.

...Nonetheless, the Army's values are important to soldiers. They may not always live up to them, but they do when it matters most. Soldiers are selfless; they are courageous; they are loyal. The most interesting intellectual conversations I've had have been with others in the military. They discuss things not to impress you but because they're trying to figure them out. They're faced with difficult situations, and they want to make sense of them. Though many privately question our government's policies, they do their duty, which lies beyond the political debate.

This culture of duty is at odds with the culture of individualism and self-promotion that seems paramount here in college.
As one of those students, I have to admit that at first I felt a little defensive about William's op-ed. But as these thoughts sank in I began to accept them as accurate. Indeed, the college life is a far cry from military service, and our responsibilities are different. College is a duty to one's self, whereas the military is a duty to one's country. Serving in this country's armed forces requires a selflessness that others probably don't understand. Today, we honor their courage and their call to duty.


Anonymous said...

This is definitely an interesting issue... But the fact that Americans don't really feel this war (and don't understand what's going on the way that those serving in the military do) isn't really their fault is it? I mean, the most obvious solution for this would be to enlist in the military, but beyond that how should one develop an accurate perception of the war when the government and media are doing nothing to heighten our understanding of it's reality? Mr. Quinn is bringing up a valid argument but another question arises from his argument. Because the function of the military is to serve and protect it's country, those in the service are forced to leave their personal thoughts, morals, and objections by the wayside 99.9% of the time. And in an increasingly globalized and therefore competitive real world, it seems as hopeless to ask our general population to understand the war as it is to ask the military to understand one's conscience of it.

Matt said...

Obviously it's difficult to really comprehend the magnitude of something when we A) aren't physically there and B) are not seeing the same coverage of the war as we did in, say, Vietnam; the media are not ingraining the terrible images of this war that our soldiers in Iraq deal with nearly every hour of the day into our heads as they did in that war. Does that mean that all college students are apathetic, pot-smoking narcissists? Hardly. Yes, as a recent college graduate I have memories of bouts laziness and self-absorption--but this doesn't entail apathy in any degree. Perhaps the very reason Mr. Quinn has the problem he has with his peers' perceptions is that they simply aren't face to face with the war, as he was. Does that mean we (those that aren't face to face with the brutalities in Iraq) are completely apathetic, selfish and uncaring? Again, hardly. Whenever someone is put face to face with a traumatic event such as war, I feel they're always going to view the perceptions of those who haven't had that same experience in a negative light.

As a friend and ex-Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy (proud to serve the military and even prouder to successfully serve his country as an independent thinker) told me: "This guy can't speak for all the soldiers...and the only intellectual conversations I had in the military were with educated people who were not making the military a career. Some of the worst dirt-bags I've met were in the military, and they were quite alright with putting their self-interests before others. Loyalty is a matter of perspective ...I was doing my job; happy to do it for my country, but I was not a blind fanatically-charged patriot who never questioned the mission. The military often ignores its own values, so why should I allow myself to be brainwashed into believing they should guide my life?"

Now this quote may not directly relate to the perceived contrast in perception between civilians and military personnel that Mr. Quinn points out, but it does make salient the idea that perhaps there is more needed than simply a perceived contrast of perception to make an adequate judgment on how civilians view the war and why.

Tim said...

The quoted piece reminded me of a similar experience I had just returning to the US after a 2 years in Burkina Faso, Africa serving in the Peace Corps. Obviously, fighting insurgents in the Middle East and fighting poverty in the Sahel are two totally different foreign services but both expose one to realities not readily apparent while living and working in the States. I felt the same disconnect returning home. People around me had no idea what I had been through and they probably never would. But I've come to realize that I'm okay with that. I can't ask people to understand it with any depth. But I can ask them to try and understand the rudiments, as it were. Anonymous uses the word 'hopeless' to descibe their chances but I prefer the word 'complicated' because it is hard but not impossible to get some understanding. but coming back one has to understand that about others just as others should understand that about people coming back.

Jack said...

Speaking from experience ... It is quite a transition from military life to the life of a civilian – reality as I like to call it – especially for young men and women who enlisted into the service right out of high school and into a new world that they falsely perceive as a path to independence and maturity. These kids, sheltered by government benefits, then exposed to the trauma of war are expected to just fit into civilian society?
The reality is far from being an adventure, and if "Army strong" can't prepare a soldier for life ... it's pretty weak.

I've worked closely enough with military chaplains and the Navy/Marine Corps relief society to have noticed obvious patterns in the lifestyles of so many of these kids who have not been taught the values of real responsibility .... not the kind that ensures a catapult on the flight deck will work properly, but the type of responsibility that will pay bills, keep a business from going under and give a family decent health insurance.

The teamwork, espirit de corps, and responsibilities they are taught in the military equate to those taught in a football team ... they are to insure the success of the mission... not the person. The military, above all desires young bodies or those who have managed to find little success in their own efforts — those easily convinced that the military way is the right way. Hard core "lifers" would hate these remarks, but for them, the military has probably been a boon ... a better alternative than what their lives would have been if they had to make it on their own. That's not a bad thing, but for those who need to see more than what's on their plate ... go to school, start a career, and do something constructive with your life. Cope with the problems and relish the success. That is the best way to show your patriotism and courage.

Unless you're homicidal, the first time shooting at a living person is the same for everyone. Every successive shot becomes easier, and you will never forget the experience. It takes courage to do your duty and job (even if it's in your contract) ... but don't think you'll be able to go back to the person you were. People who don't understand what you've been through are not lesser because they haven't experienced combat... they're as ignorant of you as you are of them. Without pulling the trigger, they are just as courageous and dedicated to this country as any soldier.

imsmall said...


"He´s fucking faking that he´s dead,"
So said the young marine
Before two gunshots to the head:
So videotape has seen.

You saw the tape, and so did I,
Such murders, in a war
Come commonplace, no infamy
Especial, wide nor far;

Yet it did not get broadcast long,
Civilians so protested
Vituperative, the message strong,
Because the scene suggested

That soldiers of these USA
Like any soldiers are
In league with savagery when they
Participate in war.

The journalist as shot the tape
Received from far and wide
Death threats--civilians, you escape
Awhile but cannot hide.

The leveling of neighborhoods,
The raping of young children,
Routine the pilfering of goods,
All deeds for which no gildering,

These rest upon your stupid souls,
Exporting, by war´s means,
Domestic hatreds--on the doles
Compounded yet the liens.

Murders in war, if not routine
Belie the commonplacer
Deaths of civilians--war´s machine
Of beauty is defacer.

The little girl, all prettified
Dressed in her schoolgirl skirt,
Legs crushed, war wound tore open wide,
A dead thing in the dirt.

It falls upon you, O who love
To view the cause as noble,
Aggressive war--but not enough
In Basra or in Kabul

To justify that lily-white
The hands you love to wash so
Are sinless, even though they quite
Applaud the big kibosh so.

So you love censorship, but though
Your hand felt not the trigger,
It was your deed, and more you know
Than merely one sand nigger.

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