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The problem isn’t that the impact of conflict has been ignored, but rather that the depiction of the experiences of veterans typical of the mainstream media and Hollywood is usually simplistic and patronizing, treating them as well-meaning dupes of the war-mongers and arms dealers who exploit their simple-minded patriotism or other passé virtues like service and honor. In fact, most of the soldiers in an all-volunteer army know exactly what they sign up for, and why, and they accept the risks. And most resent the implication that they are the pathetic victims of the military-industrial complex. Yet rarely in the media and movies do we hear about their heroism and self-sacrifice, rarely do we get profiles of medal winners, rarely do we read interviews with warriors proud of their service, or hear their fond memories of the exhilaration and camaraderie they experienced. That dimension is as much a part of war as the terror of combat, or the guilt and remorse over civilian deaths. But it doesn’t fit the hoary progressive narrative in which the “merchants of death” send naïve boys to their gruesome doom just to increase corporate profits.
Unfortunately, for all his admirable respect for soldiers, Junger can’t resist this deeply imbedded meme of our therapeutic culture, even projecting it back onto the crews of the B-29’s and B-17s that bombed Japan and Germany, who he alleges “have a much harder time coming to terms with them [the bombings] as individuals.” Maybe, but it probably depends on whom you ask. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson’s father, who flew 39 missions over Japan, regretted not the bombing, which Japanese aggression brought upon itself, but the fact that it wasn’t done earlier and more thoroughly, thus perhaps avoiding the bloodbath on Okinawa that killed his brother. And here we get to the central problem of generalizations like Junger’s: they usually come down to anecdotal evidence that often elevates the exception for the norm and simplifies people’s experiences by assuming all veterans are “struggling with feelings of guilt and loss after the war.” No doubt many do, but no doubt just as many see their experiences as occasions for pride in their achievement and service. And no doubt many experience both sets of feelings. But we shouldn’t do what the culture has done, which is to take one response and assume it is the most representative.
That culture-wide assumption that combat veterans are victims to be pitied rather than heroes to be admired inhibits their reintegration into civilian life as much as the alleged societal myopia about the “horrors of war.” And beyond the impact on veterans, this exclusive focus on the evils of war and its crippling traumas can have a pernicious impact on foreign policy. The obsession with the horrors of World War I led to a “never again” mentality that helped paved the way for the policy of appeasement in the Thirties. A similar brooding over the alleged horrific crimes of Vietnam made our abandonment of South Vietnam more politically palatable, which in turn facilitated American retreat and Soviet expansionism in the 70s. And today the same sort of coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan may camouflage an over-hasty withdrawal from those countries.
From such unexamined progressive dogmas are bad policies made, dogmas so ingrained in the culture that they provide the default wisdom for otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people. Excavating and exposing such ideas requires us to do the digging where they work their mischief. That’s why I read The New York Times.
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