Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

The Worst Years of Our Lives

Two books show how American vets continue to suffer, despite empty fanfare on the home front

Jeff Stein


I'm so pissed off after reading these books I can hardly type. But my ire begins with baseball—and the same is true for Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who lost a son in Iraq.

Been to a game lately? Try to grab just a few hours of peace and fun, and what do you get? A toxic brew of manufactured religious piety and tin-hat patriotism, served up in force-feedings of "God Bless America" and coercive "salutes" to "wounded warriors" bused in for a game.

Bacevich, a West Point graduate who now writes perceptive, bristling essays and books from his perch at Boston University, puts his finger on it. "A masterpiece of contrived spontaneity," he calls one such display at Fenway Park, a Fourth of July pregame spectacle with a huge American flag draped over the left-field wall, Air Force and Navy color guards strutting about, and a Marine chorus singing the national anthem as four US Air Force F-15C Eagles scream overhead.

"The sellout crowd roars its approval," Bacevich writes in Breach of Trust, his sixth and perhaps angriest book since he retired from the Army in the early 1990s. It's an "event [that] leaves spectators feeling good about their baseball team, about their military, and not least of all about themselves—precisely as it was meant to do."

They probably think veterans revel in it, too. Well, we don't, really. When the seventh-inning stretch comes and I hear the dread ballpark public-address announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand and doff your hats for the singing of 'God Bless America,'" I head for the beer stand. Likewise, I feel queasy about being asked to stand and applaud wounded fellow veterans who've been rounded up in the stands behind home plate for their fleeting moment of appreciation before the shuttle bus takes them back to Walter Reed.

And I'm hardly alone. Consider this war widow, drafted into a memorial service for her husband and other dead soldiers: "Whoever had the idea that a grieving family should stand for 40 minutes with Toby Keith singing 'American Soldier' in the background and be forced to shake hands with and hug strangers who say the STUPIDEST things like 'Congratulations' to you and your children needs to go a round in the ring with me," she says in David Finkel's heartbreaking Thank You for Your Service.

Then there's the Iraq-war veteran constantly on the verge of blowing his brains out, also chronicled by Finkel, a gifted Washington Post reporter who followed home many of the men he embedded with in an Army combat brigade in Iraq in 2006. Who are "those people who drive around with 'We Support the Troops' signs on their cars, as if a sign on the car makes any difference?" the vet wonders, echoing the sentiments of many of Finkel's sources. "The ones who have never been to war and will never go to war and say to soldiers, 'Thank you for your service,' with their gooey eyes and orthodontist smiles?"

Click to enlarge

A pregame celebration at Fenway Park, 2009.

We hate you, not that you asked. If the war traumas weren't enough to blow pinholes in our hearts and minds, such clueless boosterism—amped up by politicians, radio ranters, fake-solemn news anchors, voice-cracking country-and-western singers, and yellow-ribbon manufacturers—would be. The grief market, now in its twelfth year following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (which killed 2,997 people), seems bottomless.

How many "walking wounded"—veterans knocked down by post-traumatic stress disorder (mental breakdowns from horrifying events) or TBI (traumatic brain injury)—are there around the country? A half million, more or less, counting the daily drip of suicides and new walk-ins. It's a hard-to-grasp number, Finkel writes, but he suggests one revealing exercise to help bring it home: "One way would be to imagine the five hundred thousand in total, perhaps as points on a map of America, all suddenly illuminated at once. The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast."

Embedded with the veterans, their families, their friends, and their counselors, Finkel lights up the lives of these struggling souls, who often compound their real problems by convincing themselves they're "weak" for "abandoning" their buddies and seeking treatment. Paradoxically, the soldiers felled by war shock often were the best in their units, natural leaders to whom others turned for help to get them home in one piece, Finkel recounts. But even the best can only take so many IEDs and so much brain splatter.

If Finkel weren't such a vivid, compelling, heartrending writer, you'd never get through his agonizing weave of battles, from the bomb-strewn highways of Iraq to the psycho clinics of VA hospitals and many ruined homes in between. The grim litany of stories collected here brings to mind nothing so much as The Best Years of Our Lives on methamphetamines—with Dana Andrews putting a shotgun to his head in the B-17 scrapyard instead of landing a job. Some endings are happy, more or less, but most not. Finkel underscores the desperation of many wives of traumatized vets with the story of one who filed a made-up charge of child molestation against her husband to force the bureaucracy to pay attention to him. (You can imagine what happened next.)

How has it come to this? A decade after the mental wards started overflowing, the Pentagon is still at a loss to understand what's going on—not that it hasn't tried, however belatedly. Finkel draws a sympathetic portrait of General Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, as he meets with his commanders for updates on the spiraling numbers and asks experts for answers.

But even at this late date, they don't have any. "The details keep coming, and vary so widely that it is difficult to learn much at all," Finkel writes. When Chiarelli heard that it could take years to finish one promising study, "he looked like a man driving in Washington traffic."

The answers to why some service members crack, and how much, and why others don't, are elusive. "A few things were clear," Finkel writes. "Soldiers with repeated deployments were more likely to commit suicide. Married soldiers were less likely. Guns and liquor were a bad combination. More time at home between deployments helped."

Talking through a nerve-rattling experience also helps, of course, for a good night's sleep, maybe more. But a long-term cure, if there is one, lies in revisiting the source of pain again and again, with buddies, or in therapy, writing, songs and poems, until the nightmares cease.

Those are the easy cases. A harder one for the Pentagon: Maybe, despite all the boosterish celebrations of our "all-volunteer" force, running our military without a draft actually turns out to draw "a disproportionate percentage of those . . . from backgrounds that made them predisposed to trauma," Finkel writes.

What can the Pentagon's brass do about that—commission still another study? Or this: "Could it have nothing to do with the soldier and everything to do with the type of war now being fought?"

Chew on that, war planners.

Andrew Bacevich hates the "all-volunteer" military (a circumlocution if there ever was one, considering the high unemployment rates that send many young people to recruiters). It's not the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, 2.5 million of whom have served mostly notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he's upset with. To the contrary. It's the new and unhinged institution that has corrupted the American polity: the nation's permanent political class. Freed of the Vietnam era's resentful or unfit draftees—with their dope addictions, propensity for war crimes, and murder of overzealous or incompetent officers—the volunteer force has allowed political leaders and the Pentagon to make war without having to worry about poor performance, rebellion in the ranks, or public disapproval.

Bacevich calls it "the great decoupling"—a gradual transformation that was made complete when knock-kneed university officials banned Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) units from campus. Three decades later, the ROTC, whose scholarships afford less affluent students the means to attend college, has made a quiet comeback at Harvard and the like. But you don't see many Ivy League students volunteering for Khost. As Bacevich observes:

The conversion of military service from collective obligation to personal preference was now complete and irrevocable. With that, an army that in the 1960s had been politically radioactive became politically inert—of no more importance in national domestic politics than the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Forest Service.

With no troops (or students) to talk back, the generals could do what they liked—and did, from Grenada, Panama, and Nicaragua to Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan—with the public as cheerleaders carefully insulated from risk, if they were paying attention at all.

After 9/11, the mantra was "United we stand." Yet even as George W. Bush ordered troops to Afghanistan and plotted the invasion of Iraq, he encouraged Americans to go shopping or visit Disney World. With no worries of being drafted, they did.

"Outsourcing war's conduct to a small warrior class—less than 1 percent of the total population—evoked occasional twinges of discomfort," Bacevich writes. The atrocities at Abu Ghraib, the revelations of torture and secret prisons, the Guantánamo grotesquerie, the silencing of US citizens by remote-controlled drones, the National Security Agency tracking our e-mails—not to mention the mounting casualties and suicides—each registered a bump in the national pulse.

Too late, too late. Game's over. On to the next war. But don't forget to drop off your Miller High Life bottle caps at "participating retailers," which will then "donate 10¢ towards High Life Experiences for returning vets," including "sports events, concerts, outdoor adventures and more," as Bacevich glumly reminds us.

"For patriotic beer drinkers," he writes in this gripping, appropriately lacerating book, "it was a risk-free proposition: 'Live the High Life. Give the High Life.' So when it came to fighting and dying, not only did we get a free pass—we could feel good about it."

Especially when you take off your hat for "God Bless America."

Jeff Stein, a former military-intelligence case officer in Vietnam, is the author of A Murder in Wartime: 
The Untold Spy Story That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War (St. Martin's Press, 1992).

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