Sooner or later you are going to start wondering just what the real purpose of the war is and was. Everyone will have an opinion, but no one will have an answer. The war, for you, will be what you decide it will be. Your role and experiences will determine the meaning you assign to it.
You may find that you whole-heartedly believe that your presence was purposeful and resulted in positive results. You may also have deep doubts as to what was accomplished overall and whether or not your buddies died in vain.
There are no easy answers to any war—no matter how clear its mission or its enemy. War evolves as it transpires, and what may have been certain and solid at the beginning dissolves as new information and events unfold. That’s why the longer war lasts, the less clear its mission becomes, because enemies are people who adapt, change, find new strategies, and new allies. New forces and new goals are established and everything moves in a constant state of evolution. Who you were fighting in the beginning may not be who you are fighting in the end. Who you were at the beginning will not be who you are at the end. You have changed. And remember, the way forward now is not to go back and recover what has been lost, but to forge ahead and become someone new.
So, let yourself ask questions, but do not invalidate your service or allegiance to your country because the answers do not come clearly. If you feel that you were used or misled or that your sacrifice is unrecognized, know that you join an ancient league of warriors who gave everything only to find that when they returned from battle, the winds of politics had changed and with it, the whole purpose of the war.
War is a political tool. It rests on the decisions of those who decide to use it for particular goals they have in mind. In its best sense, war is purely reactionary—defending real property from actual, imminent danger. In its worst, it is the devastating consequence of the personal greed of a few.
Your Role in War
That said, how you feel about your role in the war will be related to your opinion of why the war happened and what its purpose was. Your war experience is personal; it belongs only to you. You fulfilled a role that the military deemed necessary and useful. Whether you were on the front lines or not, every person attached to a mission knows that his or her role is part of the whole.
You alone can judge what you were asked to do in the war and whether what you did or did not do correlates to your ethics. Many survivors feel a strong sense of shame for having done things that crossed their moral boundaries. This is a hard, hard question. Where does a soldier’s personal moral code fit in to the gruesome, flesh-ripping, annihilate-them action of war? The fact that soldier’s consciences throb with remorse is a reflection of their humanity. We go into war assuming that certain lines will never be crossed, that there are actions our troops will never take, that we’re the good guys all the time and that Americans are well… just different.
We’re not that different. We uphold ideals. But ideals do not win wars. Death and destroying property and economies win wars. Soldiers go into battle also believing that Americans are different. We don’t torture people, we don’t kill women and children, we don’t laugh when a suicide bomber fumbles and can’t blow himself up. No, of course not.
Of course we do. Our intentions may be altruistic—spreading democracy, bringing our brand of freedom, setting up systems that have worked well for us for two hundred years to countries that have existed for over three thousand. We believe we know best, know freedom, and we have the economic power to prove it. But what do we have to learn? War is a teacher for all of us. Veteran and civilian.
How you think about your war service will depend on where you see the United States fitting in with its neighbors, allies, and foes.
Some survivors feel shame and some feel immense pride. Regardless of your role in the war, you were serving your country and you have a right to be proud of that. When people suggest that your service was futile, remind them that if you hadn’t been willing to go, their children would have. Every American owes you a debt of gratitude and admiration because without you, we wouldn’t know what life without war is.
The purpose of war is controversial; the honor due veterans is not.
Thank you for serving.