Ed Philp with a far-flung rumination on the US, hoping to provoke Andrew into a comment at some point during his vacation.
I read a lengthy profile of women veterans returning back to the United States this weekend in the NYT Magazine (article here). The article made me recall a thought I had a while back in 2004 or 2005. The United States now has around 130,000 service members stationed in Iraq, and it’s probably safe to assume that in total, some 200,000 will have rotated in and out since the beginning of the war in 2003.
It is trite to say it, but these people will have had remarkably different experiences than the vast majority of Americans their age. Some of them will have shot people; others will have watched friends die or Iraqis murdered; most will have experienced a genuine fear for their lives and – at the least – seen things that ‘stateside’ civilians only read about in the newspaper, if at all.
Will there be a long-term effect of having a group of people reintegrate back into US civil society having participated in a real shooting war, and having seen and done things that the mainstream can only witness in an abstract manner? Some of these people will be psychologically damaged, others crippled; all of them will likely feel themselves to be once-removed from the others who did not go through this experience. For some, it may be a transformative experience that is profoundly positive.
It has been argued that returning veterans from World War II made a significant contribution to the US post-war industrial boom, as a generation returned from war disciplined, trained in organizational staffing and logistics, and well-suited for the hierarchies of the business world. Vietnam perhaps had the opposite effect, with thousands of veterans returning home disillusioned, exposed to mindless brutality, drugs, and defeat (obviously, not all Vietnam veterans would agree with that).
There is no doubt that participation in either World War II or Vietnam became a touchstone issue for a generation – as an example, witness the emphasis given to the military service credentials of presidential candidates, to John F. Kennedy, or George H.W. Bush; witness also the the recurring focus on the service in Vietnam of candidates such as Kerry and McCain (or lack thereof for George W. Bush).
In twenty years, will service in Iraq today be such a focal issue in American politics? Will the returning veterans from Iraq today go on to have a disproportionate positive or negative influence within US society? For the US, World War II and Vietnam were common denominators for generations of young men who were drafted or volunteered en masse. This is not the case with Iraq: the returning veterans won’t represent a general majority among their age group anywhere. Nonetheless, they are sitting in college classrooms now, and more are on the way; many are approaching the age where they will assume responsibility in civil positions in society; some will go on to start businesses, attend medical school, run for office. Is this noticeable in the US?