It is sweet and right to die for your country?

Over the past couple of years, I’ve shared with my fellow soldiers my opinion that our job used to be fun, and that it simply isn’t anymore. Some of these soldiers are my peers, seasoned veterans with twenty years in, give or take, and some are new to the Army, having entered the world as I was entering the Army. I’ve been unable to give anybody, myself included, a precise reason why this is the case; I simply know that I used to enjoy what I do, and now I don’t. And it isn’t just that I don’t enjoy what I do, it’s as if the entire atmosphere in which I work has changed; where there were once lighthearted but purpose-filled days and missions, life in the Army today seems monotonous, tedious, and somehow ultimately pointless. I know the change took place after September 11, 2001, and I know the ensuing wars somehow helped cause the change, but I’ve never been able to pinpoint the exact reason. Tonight, I may have stumbled upon a semblance of an answer, at least for me.

As I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, a memory from 1998 surfaced. I was assigned to the United States Continental Army Band (TUSCAB) at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and we were hosting a military tattoo in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). At the time, TRADOC was headquartered at Fort Monroe, and TUSCAB was (and still is) often referred to as the “TRADOC Band.” It was a very big event, with the four-star commander of TRADOC hosting the Chief of Staff and Sergeant Major of the Army. During our portion of the show, TUSCAB performed an arrangement of a song entitled “We Were There,” a patriotic song about the Army’s storied history and exploits in defending our nation. Our commander, Major Thomas Palmatier, had extended the song to include some narration extrapolating on the feats of derring-do being sung about, and I was the narrator. Soldiers in period costumes came on to the field in front of the band, and I moved down the line as I delivered my spiel about each one. The narration began with, “The soldiers of the Continental Army endured the hardships of Valley Forge for the cause of liberty,” which I spoke as I gestured to the Revolutionary War soldier. I don’t remember all of the rest of the narration, except for the very end, which was something along the lines of: “Remember, it was the American soldier who fought for freedom in Korea and Vietnam, and who provided the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm!” Major Palmatier wanted me to deliver that last phrase in as booming and triumphant a voice as I could muster, and the line drew wild applause from the audience. It is in that phrase, and in the reaction to it, that I may have found my answer to my original question.

I joined the Army in October 1993, and the memory of the victory in Desert Storm was still fresh. There had been a few bands who deployed to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and there were still some musicians in the ranks who wore combat patches. I remember being in awe of those soldiers; they had been to a combat zone after all, something most Americans assumed (and still do) that Army musicians didn’t do. The stories they told, however, didn’t sound very glorious or heroic; rather, they centered primarily around sand, burning feces, and boredom. Still, they were combat veterans, and that combat patch looked like a Medal of Honor to me.

Fast forward to February 2006. I deployed for the first time, and was going to earn that coveted combat patch. I spent several months in Afghanistan, and a couple in Pakistan, doing a few dangerous things, I suppose, and playing my trumpet a little bit. But mostly it was sand and boredom, with no burning feces, thankfully. Somewhere along the way I began to feel that the only thing I was doing over there was wasting a year of my life, a year separated from family and missing out on the life that the rest of America was enjoying while ignoring what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I returned to the States, I found myself angry and bitter over things like “Support the Troops” magnets on cars, and the chest-thumping, flag-waving songs of Toby Keith. I had viewed those magnets and listened (and sung) those songs with pride before I left. Now, though, they looked like empty gestures from people largely unaffected by the wars overseas. I’ve gotten over that feeling, mostly, though I still cringe a little inside when I hear the live version of Toby Keith’s “The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue);” when the crowd roars their approval at the line “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” I think to myself, “Of course you’re cheering. It’s not your boot, and you’re not the one doing the putting.” I deployed to Iraq in April 2008, but this time there was little excitement on my part. I already had my combat patch, it was not the Medal of Honor I thought it was going to be, and I knew I was looking at another year of my life wasted. Once again, sand, boredom, a little trumpet playing, and no feces burning.

I did not kick in doors while I was downrange, I did not have to shoot anybody, and nobody shot at me. I did absolutely nothing heroic while I was deployed, and I do not have PTSD from my experiences over there. My demons are home-grown and predate my military service. I have, however, played Taps at a whole bunch of funerals for soldiers who died doing those heroic things. I have stood on the tarmac at Bagram Airfield as a dozen flag-draped caskets were loaded on to a C-17 for their final trip home. I once saw a soldier at a redeployment ceremony at Fort Drum who had come home early and was at the ceremony to welcome his brothers-in-arms home; his entire body was in bandages except for his head, which was covered in scars from the fire that had burned off his nose and ears. These things contribute somehow to that nagging and vague question about why my job isn’t fun anymore. I am a little proud of my deployments; after all, in simply going over there I did more than most Americans did. But that pride is mixed with a lot of bitterness that I did something that most Americans didn’t. And I am increasingly uncomfortable with strangers shaking my hand and thanking me for my service. I’m not sure exactly why, although I think somehow it has something to do with that “empty gesture” thing I mentioned earlier. I know they mean well, but still…

In 1998, war seemed glorious and heroic, and not just to me, but to an entire nation still ¬†heady about a quick and relatively painless victory in Iraq. We had watched CNN as Wolf Blitzer and Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf spoke of smart bombs and “cutting off the head” and “killing it.” War was sanitary and fun, like a video game. By 2006, though, “shock and awe” had given way to talk of “quagmires” and “another Vietnam.” The wars dragged on and on, and the body counts got higher and higher. Today, ten years after the invasion of Iraq, we have withdrawn all our troops and declared the mission a success. I’m not so sure the Iraqis agree with that assessment, as they struggle to put their country back together and sectarian violence increases. Next year, thirteen years after we arrived in Afghanistan, we are supposed to leave and let the Afghan people chart their own course. Are we leaving it any better than we found it? I am not interested in debating whether or not we should have invaded those countries; someone else can make that determination. But I do wonder if it was worth it, for me, for the Army, for our country and theirs. Was it all truly worth the blood and treasure, the broken bodies and hearts, the shattered dreams and psyches?

And so my answer: perhaps what I thought was “fun” in 1998 was merely a naive patriotism bolstered by false notions about the true nature of war. Perhaps the ennui that I sense today in both myself and the Army is in fact the realization that war is not glorious or heroic or fun. It is brutal and boring, tedious and chaotic. My job was never supposed to be fun in the first place, and perhaps we all would be well-served to keep that in mind.

“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace behind the wagon what we flung him in, and watch the white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin…you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”–Willfred Owen


2 thoughts on “It is sweet and right to die for your country?

  1. Although I believe it is possible to support the troops while simultaneously opposing whatever the current foreign entanglement is, I feel that, with the results of current voting patterns, the same people thanking you for your service are also the people who voted to send you into harm’s way for reasons that remain unclear. That makes it hard for me, personally to accept those thanks graciously.

    • Erik, you’re absolutely correct. Cindy Sheehan was pilloried by conservatives, who painted her as unpatriotic and perhaps even treasonous for protesting outside President Bush’s ranch in Texas. She had sacrificed her son to this war, a far greater sacrifice than any of those conservative politicians and pundits had made. In my opinion, they lacked the moral authority to criticize her actions.

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