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Who is at War?

November 11, 2011

I arrived in Afghanistan about nine years ago, in the first week of November 2002. It took a couple days to get there. We left Fort Benning and drove to Atlanta. From there we flew commercial to Baltimore and had a seven-hour layover. My wife drove up to the airport and we spent the day together before she dropped me off to catch a flight to Afghanistan by way of Germany, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan and a couple other places before our C-130 corkscrewed down to the airfield on a rainy night in Bagram.

Apparently it hadn’t rained heavily there in about five years. So the locals took our arrival as a harbinger of good things to come.  Maybe that’s why they laid off the rockets for the night. Rain and rockets would have made a pretty lethal welcome cocktail for us newbies. Rain was only disheartening.  

But the mortars didn’t come that night. So I sat around the “terminal” and waited for someone to come get me. It didn’t take long. I mean really, how long would it take you to get over to the airport when your replacement had arrived. He was buoyant. I was apprehensive and deep into jet lag.

About a year later, I was flying out. It had been a fast year. My classmate was the commander of a battalion of the 82nd Airborne and was headquartered just down the road, so I got to check in with him once in a while. I had troops scattered all over the country so I got to see much of Afghanistan by air and ground. I got promoted and was decorated. Then I was home.

Home was good. The nice lady from United Airlines threatened to have me arrested when I wanted to leave my four duffel bags in a neat stack at the edge of the long check-in line rather than dragging them inch by inch along the way. Oddly there weren’t any carts available; I assumed it was some new TSA thing. People stared at me in my desert camouflage uniform. I guess because at that point in the war there were only about 10,000 American troops rotating through Afghanistan and the 160,000 or so that would be in Iraq hadn’t started coming home yet. I remember the sensation of being the only person in uniform at the airport after having been just one of a few thousand soldiers on our base in Afghanistan.

Home wasn’t what I expected. I don’t know precisely what I thought America would be like when I arrived home, but this wasn’t it. Everything seemed so normal. People still drove like idiots. There were still vapid songs on the radio. Kill Bill Volume 1 and Underworld were showing at the movie theater down the street.

Then it hit me: America wasn’t at war.

I’m not sure in the eight years since that America has actually been at war. Certainly the American military has been at war.  A couple million Americans have been at war every day. But I don’t think America has. We have no draft. We have less than 1% of our population in service. We’ve had precious little national debate over these two wars, over the trillion plus dollars spent on them, on the thousands of American lives lost and the tens or hundreds of thousands of other lives lost. There really isn’t a sense of shared sacrifice.

I wrote a piece for another magazine a couple years ago in which I suggested that the reckoning for these wars would come long after the flags have been furled and the parades passed. I wondered out loud in that piece if we risked creating une génération perdue, a lost generation because of untreated mental health trauma. And while I’m still concerned about the number of troops returning wounded with blood and bone wounds and with mental health trauma or brain injuries, I worry as much now about what my colleague Mark Thompson’s article in yesterday’s TIME Magazine called An Army Apart.

America isn’t at war. Only our military is.


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