Another School Year, Another War Year

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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 were 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 as
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, and
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. Were 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. It is 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.“

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