Haunted by what they have seen and done: the soldier’s burden

Too many members of the US military are angry, depressed and anxious after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They deserve to be seen, heard and appreciated, as three books make clear

Fallen friends: a veteran of the war in Iraq sits beside symbolic graves. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Fallen friends: a veteran of the war in Iraq sits beside symbolic graves. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:00

Last November I read an op-ed in my current local paper, the Washington Post , headlined, “How the military isolates itself – and hurts veterans”, which lamented the geographical, social and psychological divide between members of the US military and civilians, and suggested how to shrink it.

The authors noted that about a third of military families live on bases in the US where they work, shop, golf, see military doctors, fill their gas tanks and school their children. Many more live just outside the wires, in enclaves. As the military is increasingly concentrating itself on remote bases, “city-dwellers, including the nation’s political and business elites, may rarely see service members in uniform”.

After I read the article I emailed a new friend in DC, the only member of the military, apart from the second World War vets of my parents’ generation, whom I have ever known. A career naval officer in his early 50s who had served in Afghanistan, my friend dismissed the article. “I saw it,” he wrote back, “it’s an old story, and we’re always being blamed as the ones out of touch.”

“But it was written by two guys in the military,” I said, meekly. He didn’t answer. By then my friend and I had had a number of discussions about the civilian-military relationship, and I knew enough to know that he would have agreed with what the first comment below the online version of the article said: “The divide exists because some people know war and some people don’t.”

Thanks You for Your ServiceAt the time I had just read David Finkel’s new book, Thank You for Your Service (Scribe, 272pp, £18.99), and among its many unsettling images was an angrier version of that same idea: a severely injured Iraq-war vet named Michael Emory who wears a T-shirt that says, on the front, “What Have You Done for Your Country?” and, on the back, “I Took a Bullet in the Head for Mine”.

It’s an image that speaks volumes about the bind vets are in, on the one hand wanting to be seen, heard, reckoned with, appreciated; on the other dismissing civilians who might make the attempt.

RedeploymentPhil Klay, who served in the United States marine corps in Iraq, came home in better shape than Michael Emory. He has just published Redeployment (Canongate, 288pp, £14.99), his debut story collection. Klay had what he has called “a mild deployment . . . long hours at a cheap plywood desk in a cheap plywood hut in the middle of a desert”. But his narrators voice the same dilemma.

In Psychological Operations a vet enrolled at Amherst is trying to tell a war story to a fellow student, a woman he has invited to his house for the very purpose.

He thinks to himself: “The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people . . . Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, ‘I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians’.”