No idea in American society is more pervasive than the notion that we all owe a debt of gratitude to the young men and women who have volunteered to fight our foreign wars. This nearly universal belief flows from a sense of collective guilt that the veterans of our previous Asian adventure in Vietnam were not welcomed home with appreciation for their sacrifices and were somehow held responsible for America's first losing war. This attitude was especially unfair since many of the participants in that conflict were draftees who had little choice about their service.
Now, in the face of widespread uncertainty about whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were worth fighting, we nevertheless are determined to show the people who fought them our respect and admiration. Everyone in uniform these days is accorded heroic status, and those who are killed receive individual news coverage impossible during Vietnam.
All our wars, of course, are justified as struggles for freedom. This goal deserves further discussion and understanding before we ask our young to die on its behalf. It is difficult to see what essential American freedom has been at risk during these longest wars, undertaken out of reflexive fear after the attacks of Sept. 11. Our insecurity enabled us to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or that the terrorists in Afghanistan were a threat to our way of life. We had been, in fact, well and truly terrorized and were determined to retaliate against somebody. From the point of view of those seeking to hold or achieve political power it was useful to stoke these fears. Richard Nixon was wrong about many things, but he was right when he said, "People react to fear, not love — they don't teach that in Sunday School, but it's true."
And so we were plunged into these wars, and the military we had to fight them was made up of people who for reasons that seemed good and sufficient to them had elected to be soldiers. Amid the jingoistic enthusiasm that accompanies the beginning of every war, they became our heroes. "Navy Seals rock!" Katie Couric said on national TV. Their early successes were trumpeted ("Mission accomplished"), and for a while we all felt good about ourselves. Then they started dying, mostly in decidedly unheroic ways like being blown up at random by roadside bombs. Then we saw the photos from Abu Ghraib and had to accept that perhaps they weren't all heroes. More recently, we have been witness to atrocities that have made it apparent that asking people to risk their lives repeatedly for ill-defined objectives in faraway places where we are not well-liked can take a terrible toll.
We seem required to learn over and over a painful lesson: Wars are easier to start than to end. Echoing Vietnam, we have heard about the need to "stay the course" while we train indigenous forces to take over the fighting. Whenever I hear this argument, I think of two other things we should have learned by now: 1) it is telling that the people we are fighting don't seem to need more training, and 2) it is impossible to train a man to risk his life for an idea.
We certainly owe a debt to those who have borne the battle on our nation's behalf. In these wars of choice we have required them to do so over and over. They and their families are tired. They are, in general, neither heroes nor villains. They volunteered (albeit with insufficient information) to be where they are and do what they do. Like the Roman Legionnaires of old they have chosen to fight their country's foreign wars. Whether they made the right decision, only they can say. We at home who have come to largely ignore these conflicts as they dragged on into pointlessness, and we cannot fully comprehend the costs to the young people who have been there. They deserve our support and especially the best treatment we can provide for those who will carry the emotional and physical scars of their participation into the rest of their lives.
But in asking our troops to don the mantle of heroism so we can feel better that we ourselves have sacrificed nothing, we risk missing the cost that all wars extract from those who fight them.