Don’t Play Identity Politics With Veterans
Some have suggested certain Americans aren't qualified to tell the stories of our Middle East wars. Nonsense.
After leaving the army in 2010, I headed to journalism school in Austin. There, I couldn’t get enough of cycling around in the Texas sunshine, my military uniform replaced by shorts, T-Shirt, flip-flops, and a new life of easygoing abandon. That said, if I came to a halt behind a bus or a truck, I couldn’t resist inhaling the exhaust fumes. The delicious smell reminded me of Delta-30 turning over its engines as it idled on the tank park.
Other times, I’d find myself waiting in the cycle lane at the traffic lights opposite an enormous truck driven by a grinning frat boy joshing with his friends as loud music spilled out. I wanted to shout over the din: hey, tough guy! You think that’s a set of wheels—I used to command a f**king 72-ton tank!
It’s strange what a relationship with a main battle tank leaves behind, even if it seems now like part of a different life. It continues to prove hard to let go of.
And it isn’t helped by how I can’t seem to escape running into other veterans. One was parked outside the same laundromat I was at the other day, in the van he shares with his girlfriend criss-crossing the country, living off his Veterans Affairs benefits for his injuries and his PTSD. Lately I’ve even found myself bumping into Iraqis: I spoke to four of them in one day the other week.
These encounters with refugees proved particularly timely. Shortly beforehand, I read a Twitter post by a commentator addressing America’s 18-year war in Afghanistan and how to evaluate its terrible legacy:
!!!! omg i have an idea !!!!!
I know it’s crazy…. But….What if we actually heard from the Afghan people?
In the same post, she quoted a paragraph from an article featured on the Defense One website, entitled, “Who Gets To Tell the Story of the Afghanistan War?”:
Is it angry veterans and war-weary journalists? Is it Pentagon public relations pros, putting the spin on the best story they can for Washington politics and the public? Is it the ground troops and their families who led their men and women through combat, took terrain, won hearts and minds, killed the enemy, and then came home to heroically save each other once again, yet this time from their demons? Is it the Hollywood movies that don’t get the story quite right? Is it the 4-star generals who still methodically and earnestly warn politicians and the public that this war, like all of the United States’ contemporary missions against worldwide violent extremism, will be messy, complicated, and take much longer than 18 years to win? Is it American voters?
Those are some salient points. But I can’t get behind the seemingly dismissive tone regarding “angry veterans” (I think many are just terribly sad) who “came home to heroically save each other once again, yet this time from their demons,” as well as the inference that these stories might be less valid.
For one, it doesn’t appear that the saving is getting the upper hand over the demons. About 17 veterans commit suicide each day, according to Veterans Affairs. The number is slightly down from previous statistics—the VA previously confused the issue somewhat by including suicides by active duty personnel—but it remains an appalling testament to the burden too many veterans have to carry.
Second, I’m not a fan of the claim that only a specific type of person can tell a specific type of story. This argument has been made a lot lately regarding race and sexuality, most recently focusing on the hit novel American Dirt, whose author has been criticized for appropriating the experience of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border. I’d never seen it applied to veterans—until that Twitter post.
The siloing of who has the right—or more of a right—to tell stories takes us in a dangerous and dictatorial direction. Making sense of the quagmire that is Afghanistan requires the voices of all involved to be heard. Hence that Twitter post got it right in highlighting the discrepancy between veterans and Afghans telling their stories. It’s an imbalance that’s been made more problematic by the nature of some veteran accounts that have made it onto bookshelves.
Shortly after my 2009 Afghanistan tour, while browsing the military section of a London bookstore, I spotted a book titled Dressed to Kill. I then discovered it had been written by a female Apache pilot who had supported our battle group. I didn’t know whether to laugh or shake my head at the crass title and how the book had so clearly been rushed to publication.
In her defense, I imagine she had very little to do with selecting the title. Which war stories we hear from veterans has more to do with publishers calling the shots from plush offices and over long lunches in swanky restaurants. Still, the book seemed indicative of the sorry, war porn-ish state of many publications about Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s especially a shame since Britain is the country that produced the edifying war memoirs and writings of the likes of Richard Hilary’s The Last Enemy, Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero.
I also sympathize with the inference in the tweeted paragraph to an issue that may well be on many people’s minds in regard to veterans, and which is certainly on my mind—“Enough with the navel gazing! Can’t you guys just move on?! It’s 2020!” On that, I couldn’t agree more. I would love to move on. But as the veteran from the camper van, who also left in 2010, put it: “It’s with me now as much as it ever was.”
How much should be provided to veterans, both materially and in praise and gratitude? That’s a tough line to tread. Many people are involved in jobs—for example, first responders and those working in the ER—where they experience regular trauma, with little acknowledgement by the wider public or follow-up assistance like what is available to veterans.
But at the same time, what is unique about veterans is that they signed up to a military covenant whereby they had to follow orders and potentially lay down their lives for the unseen masses. I sense that many people, especially among the younger generations, are losing sight of that fact, and all that comes with it.
Over the past 18 years, as the military has been engaged in its longest period of sustained conflict ever. About one half of 1 percent of American adults have served on active duty at any given time. During World War II, it was about 12 percent.
“As the size of the military shrinks, the connections between military personnel and the broader civilian population appear to be growing more distant,” commented a 2011 report by the Pew Research Center.
This gets at what most perturbed me about the tweet and the paragraph. The overall tone seemed to come from a place that risked straying into indifference to the plights of veterans. Who gets to tell the story of the Afghanistan war? Here is one small story from my Afghanistan tour to consider:
The IED exploded under the Viking’s rear cab in which Lt. Colonel Thornloe was doing overwatch from the roof. After the vehicle shuddered to a halt and the smoke cleared, the soldier riding top cover in the front cab jumped from its roof onto the rear one. He found the top half of Thornloe’s body leaning against the toolbox that ran along the roof of the rear cab. The explosion had ripped open the cab’s floor and sliced Thompson in two—the lower half of his body was missing. Thompson’s eyes followed the soldier trying to help him, but they soon rolled back, followed by blood trickling out of his mouth. He lost consciousness and a check of his pulse confirmed he was dead. At the same time a corporal entered the billowing dust and darkness within the rear cab hoping to find the soldier that had been sat inside. He saw what he thought was a hand reaching out to him. He grabbed it but it wasn’t attached to an arm. After clambering out of the vehicle, he ran to the side and knelt down to look underneath at where the explosion had torn through the bottom of the vehicle. He saw what appeared to be a mixture of flesh, mush, body armour and combat clothing. He ran to collect a body bag and then crawled under the Viking, locating a torso missing an arm and both legs. He removed a pistol that was still strapped to what had been a hip and put what remains he could find into the body bag. Meanwhile, two soldiers lifted the lifeless half-torso of Thompson down from the roof of the cab and zipped it into another body bag.
I was at the Forward Operating Base at the time. I’ve pieced together the event from things I’ve heard and read since, primarily a passage in a 2011 book that was written about the tour called Dead Men Risen by the journalist Toby Harden. I’ve still never managed to read the damn thing in its entirety. I can’t bring myself to do it. It sits there, taunting me from a bookcase to this day. Indirectly experiencing the death of our battalion commander—a wonderful and inspiring man—was bad enough. I wonder what those soldiers at the scene think about it now, and how they deal with it. I think it’s important to remember that.
At the same time, and I mean it sincerely, if the Taliban fighter who laid the IED is still alive, I want to hear his perspective. What was his motivation at the time? What does he think about it now? By all means, let’s add Afghan voices. Perhaps then it will be easier for all of us who were involved to arrive at an honest reckoning. But let’s not exclude veterans’ perspectives either, lest we forget what they’ve sacrificed.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the U.S., the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. He previously served in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan with the British Army. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey and Instagram james_rfj.