For better or worse, ours is today a warlike nation that depends on volunteers to fill the ranks of its armed forces. Young men and women have a variety of motives for signing up. No doubt some do so for high-minded, even idealistic reasons. For many, however, more pragmatic considerations figure: a job with salary and benefits, a chance to escape from a humdrum or dispiriting existence. In all likelihood, few volunteers know what they are getting into, particularly in wartime. Fully disclosing what service in a distant war zone might entail is not a high priority for recruiters trying to fill their monthly quota of warm and willing bodies.
Even so, a new Washington Post poll of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans shows that, looking back, most of today’s veterans find no cause to regret their decision to join. Nearly nine out of 10 would do so again. Indeed, a majority of those who participated in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars profess to “miss” something they experienced there.
What they miss is not the chance to kill jihadists, pursuant to spreading democracy and the American way of life, but comradeship experienced in the midst of trying circumstances. In that regard, of course, today’s veterans do not differ greatly from prior generations. However mystifying to those who have never spent any appreciable time in uniform, the bonds formed between soldiers in the course of wartime service — and even on occasion in service other than in wartime — have an immediacy and intimacy seldom found in other walks of life.
For decades now, Hollywood has milked this band-of-brothers narrative for all of its considerable entertainment value. More recently, in a curious sort of implicit homage to military life, an endless succession of television series has depicted relationships formed in precinct houses, fire stations, hospitals and law firms as equivalent in intensity to those forged on the battlefield.
These are, in effect, war movies without war, emblems of a culture in which relationships tend increasingly to be shallow and transitory, where not altogether virtual. Small wonder that veterans, immersed in that culture, will recall their wartime service as the moment when they experienced something inarguably authentic and, if viewed from a certain angle, perhaps purposeful.
These days, even Vietnam veterans seem susceptible to a sort of Nam nostalgia, although that may more accurately signify an effort to silence lingering demons. In surprisingly large numbers, those who departed Vietnam swearing never to return are today lining up to do just that. A decade or two hence, count on some intrepid travel operator to start organizing tourist excursions that will escort ex-GIs back to Anbar or Kandahar. Thus does war’s seductive allure persist.
Indeed, apart from revealing a distinct if inexplicable preference for George W. Bush as commander in chief over Barack Obama, the new Washington Post poll contains few real surprises.
That recent veterans view soldiers (and presumably themselves) as more moral and patriotic than their fellow citizens should not come as news. That, after all, forms one of the standard tropes of the age. To judge by press clippings and political speeches, those volunteering to serve are better than mere civilians. Veterans apparently take such claims seriously. By more than 3 to 1, they “feel good” about public testimonials of support, ranging from yellow ribbons to beer commercials, that affirm the soldier’s elevation to the status of national icon.
Reports of rampant sexual assault in military ranks have not dented this collective self-esteem. The same goes for Air Force officers cheating on proficiency exams. Ditto for the generals behaving with adolescent boorishness. No wonder vets believe that they should go to the front of the line when seeking employment. From their perspective, it’s only fair for the virtuous to be rewarded.
Speaking for myself, I believe that the troops would do well to ratchet down the self-regard. And when it comes to interpreting yellow ribbons and other “thank you for your service” testimonials, they might want to exhibit a bit more skepticism.
But there’s another question on which I’d be interested in hearing from younger veterans. It’s this: The world’s best military establishment didn’t win in Iraq, and it won’t win in Afghanistan. Why is that?
Andrew J. Bacevich is a military historian at Boston University and the author of “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.” He is preparing an online, open-enrollment course on “America’s War for the Greater Middle East.” He wrote this article for the Washington Post.