Classes have started again, and military recruiters are out in full force. Students spill onto the quad, the August sun blazes down on the sea of people rushing off to class or lounging in the grass. And there are my fellow students, standing tall in their uniforms, underneath a military tent where they pass out literature, start conversations, or just smile at passersby.
I was a sophomore in college when the Iraq War started. I remember when my generation was the first to ship off in that war, others sent to Afghanistan before that. I remember the first shock of realizing that war is something that is fought by people I know, working-class kids from my punk scene, youth of color from my high school, my little brother’s friends, kids who had no other way to pay for college or get out of our small town. Now, seven years later, I am a graduate student, and this is still sort of my generation’s war. But it is being inherited by a younger generation. They look like children to me – what I must have looked like then when the Iraq War began, what my peers must have looked like when they were first marched in lines onto the tarmac and boarded onto fighter jets.
A cluster of college bros walks by, talking loudly. Some people are playing hackeysack in the grass. Students walk out of class, speaking animatedly. This is normal life. And so too is war. Most of these students don’t remember when the first of their generation were shipped off. Because for most of them, the war has been going on since high school. Since junior high. Many of them do not even remember when people still believed in the Iraq War, when the flags were flying and the war drums pounding. War is the backdrop that simply is, the reality that intrudes into this scene of exuberance, the cause that picks off your classmates, the strangely consistent section of the newspaper.
I think of soldiers my age who returned from wars shadows of themselves, who wake up screaming at night, who can’t stay in one place, who can’t function. In my work supporting Iraq Veterans against the War and GI resisters, I’ve seen that survival is filled with ghosts, that it is a heavy load to carry when you are 19, 22, 27, or 34 years old. That it is a heavy load for your family and loved ones to carry. And then there are those who didn’t survive. Lost to combat. Or suicide. Last fiscal year, 239 soldiers killed themselves, 160 of them active duty, 146 soldiers died from high-risk activities, including 74 drug overdoses, and 1,713 soldiers survived suicide attempts, according to an Army report.
I think of war survivors in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine. People who are merely dark shadows in US media and public discourse. People who have suffered under shifting alliances and occupations, people who have had their villages and cities cut through with razor wires, tanks, and walls and exploded by bombs. The headlines are trumpeting that the Iraq War is over. But how long until the war is actually over for the Iraqi people? How long until the last “non-combat” soldier, or the last private contractor goes home? How long until the last oil profiteer packs up and leaves? How long until there is a semblance of self-determination for the Iraqi people, and reparations for the irreparable harm that has been done?
It didn’t make any sense then, when the government was sounding the war drums after 9/11, or when bombs exploded over Baghdad – eerie, flashing lights and burning buildings flashing across our TV screens. And it doesn’t make any sense now that the military, government, media insist that the wars are almost over. Or are over. Or are escalating so that they can get the job done and then end. They have been saying that for years. An admission that the wars and occupations are no longer justifiable in the public eye, that politicians must find ways to make it seem that the wars are constantly on the brink of conclusion, even as they persist.
And it is the same pool of soldiers fueling both wars. Some having faced two, three, four, even five deployments. Sent from Afghanistan to Iraq then back to Afghanistan. How long before the war is over for these soldiers? How long before their minds and bodies have begun to heal? The Vietnam War was marked by skyrocketing homelessness, PTSD, and suicide once troops returned. And now our troops are facing record deployments. Who knows what the long-term effects will be? Already, we know that rates of PTSD and traumatic brain injury among troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been disproportionately high, with a third of returning troops reporting mental problems and 18.5 per cent of all returning service members battling either PTSD or depression, according to a study by the Rand Corporation. And how long until the war is over for Iraqis and Afghans suffering from PTSD? While no statistics are forthcoming, some have estimated PTSD to be near universal in these societies.
Soldiers were plucked off from my generation. And now it continues, in this new school year, filled with expectation and energy. After nearly a decade of wars and occupations, leading nowhere, creating nothing good, we’re still looking to our youth to fill the ranks. The recruiters stand and smile, handing out literature, making eye contact, the grays and greens of their uniform mixing with the colorful clothing, people walking, back backs and school books, brick buildings with regal inscriptions on the walls. And hanging in the background, a giant banner reads “Welcome back.”