I was born in 1991. I’ve lived over half my life in a nation at war.
Starting in 2001, when I was just ten years old, the War on Terror and it’s two biggest projects to date, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have shaped my view of war as a regular facet of life, a part of being an American. It’s just something that we do. This puts me in an unfortunately un-special class of about 90 million U.S. citizens who can lay claim to this bitter benchmark, one that grows each year as more blood is shed and lives torn apart in the fog of perpetual war. Though we’ve seen no bombs fall or bullets fired in front of our eyes, we are most certainly a product of war’s specter, albeit in a different sense than our grandparents were.
After World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, millions of soldiers returned from Europe and Asia shaken from the decimation of modern warfare. With each of these wars, the US government mobilized our country for war to such a degree that even those who did not fight knew someone who did. As the flag-draped coffins came back every day, Americans felt deeply, personally impacted by the human cost of war. Today, the pain of losing a loved one is as real as it ever was, but the proportion of the population that feels it has shrunk, as the demographics of our military has generally shifted to America’s rural—and too often working-class and working-poor—communities.
For most Americans, our most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been as present.
I see of some of the effects of war at home, to be sure: full body scans at the airport; the cultural persecution of Muslim-Americans; and the thousands of veterans, returned home to their families, hardened externally and softened internally by the truth of an eleven-year battle. But effects on the ‘home front’ of this war are often unseen. We talk about the Patriot Act, about warrantless wiretapping under FISA and the general stripping of civil liberties that has taken place in the name of stopping terrorism, but these things are intangible to many U.S. citizens. With each year that passes, I worry that for myself and millions of others, these losses will cease to truly be seen as losses, and simply become the new normal.
I also know that a percentage of the money I’ve given to the federal government has gone towards the continuation and expansion of this global war on terror. In the first ten years of this diffuse war, the U.S. spent over $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security, with $1.36 trillion of that going to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. God only knows how much has been spent in the drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. So where did my contribution go, specifically? An aid package for Afghani refugees? A young soldier’s first assault rifle? Questions without answers beget more questions without answers, and eventually melancholy. What I do know is that the money I have given to the federal government fuels the war machine, and does not directly help the people on the ground.
Even the dead become abstractions, number puppets used as food for debate. We know exactly how many of our country’s daughters and sons have been lost since that day eleven years ago, but any more information than that is just a guessing game. The estimates for a civilian death toll in Iraq hovers around 115,000, and civilian casualties in the Afghan War’s numbers are so disputed that no agency has even bothered to make a serious estimate of its overall death toll.
But physician and Harvard professor Paul Farmer may have put my feelings best in 2005 when he said, “Where, in the midst of all of these numbers, is the human face of suffering?”
What is adult life without war? For me, it probably would not be much different. If I am honest with myself, I’m often more concerned with finding a job that pays a living wage than trying stopping an intractable, perpetual war that’s mostly taken place out of sight and mind since it began—not for lack of empathy, but out of necessity. Even if I did try, recent history would be a cynical haymaker to any idealism I might have; millions turned out to protest the Iraq War in 2003 before it even began, to no effect. Despite a growth in public opinion that the war in Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan should end, both continue to this day.
That which I do know only reinforces a reticent cynicism within me—reticent
, because I generally try to look at the problems facing our country with an open mind and an optimistic (if naïve) hope that they can be worked out. But we live in an age of immediate analysis, communication and reflection. Despite one war ending just over one year ago and another still happening, it seems possible that more has already been written about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than any other war in U.S. history, including what may amount to millions of articles, blog posts, academic studies, government and NGO reports, and more.
The wealth of information is there about the effects of war; some of it helpful, some of it speculative, some of it contradictory, most of it incapable of reversing the trend of nihilistic, postcolonial annihilation known as modern warfare.
The changing demographics of our society make me hopeful. Although I I have grown up in a political climate of constant loggerheads, revolving doors, disputed elections, financial crisis, and never-ending war, I am also part of the most diverse generation in our nation’s history. My generation is the first to truly have a globalized, instantaneous form of communication, and is, perhaps un-coincidentally, the most left-leaning generation in decades.
I cannot claim to know what conflict the years ahead will bring. Maybe war with Iran, or Pakistan? Perhaps the Syrian Civil War, Greece’s broad meltdown of social institutions, governmental instability in North Africa, and the violent, ongoing hum of the Israel-Palestine conflict will send the Mediterranean into full-blown chaos? Hopefully, none of these things will happen. At whatever juncture we come to, only one thing is certain: For the first time in the lives of those 90 million young Americans, it will truly be our war, failures, consequences, and all.