What Will Iraq Veterans Be Like? 

What Will Iraq Veterans Be Like?

Using a gift certificate, I bought a magazine I've never read before: V Life. Evan Wright has a piece on U.S. soldiers in Iraq called "Dazed and Confused." Since the magazine focuses to a great extent on Hollywood, the main focus is on how soldiers see their experiences in terms of movies, TV, and videogames. (They are probably better prepared for many violent explosions and other incidents than soldiers in Vietnam were). In turn, it is possible to speculate on how the present Gulf War will be depicted in movies.

The most interesting part of the article is an attempt to capture what the soldiers are actually like. There are only a few points of overlap with the cliches of either the left or the right.

There is the upwardly mobile, somewhat disproportionately African-American military, where well-motivated young people from poor or lower-middle-class backgrounds learn cutting-edge technical skills that will give them a leg up in the civilian world. There is the progressive military, where women blaze new trails to leadership positions and perform tasks like piloting jets and helicopters into combat. There are National Guard units whose members tend to be older, have families, some college education and a level of maturity that sadly does not always compensate for their lack of solid training and equipment. As the public glimpsed in the Abu Ghraib scandal, there is also the "Jerry Springer Show" side of the military, comprising America's socioeconomic losers, whose prospects seem dim wherever they end up. These elements of the military have become familiar through media coverage and often play into expectations people have of the armed forces.

If one side of the military resists outside scrutiny, it's the combat infantry units....Many are teenagers led by officers who themselves are not 25. No women are permitted to serve in ground combat, and, based on what I saw in the Army and the Marines, these units are more white and Latino than other areas of the military.

Becoming an infantryman offers few if any job skills that translate into the civilian world. Few are motivated by promises of earning money for college. More than you would expect are middle-class suburban kids who joined to escape boredom. Some are former gangbangers....

Even those who are poorly educated tend to be smart....In their irreverence and humor, which I found never flags in even the most dire situations, they seem to possess a sort of "Jackass" quality. But unlike their goofball TV counterparts, they are highly trained, surprisingly professional and, in accordance with U.S. military doctrine, vicious killers when necessary.

....While recruitment is down in most branches of the military, a hard core of them continues to join and to re-up for second, third, even fourth combat tours.


As I came to know them, I found that many feel disenfranchised by pop culture in similar ways to punk rockers a generation ago. They might be products of that culture, but their attitudes are like those of chain smokers who hate Big Tobacco....Ironically, many possess a contempt for American materialism almost identical to that which I previously encountered while reporting on radical anarchist environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest. Both groups (about the same age) seem motivated by a potent mix of alienation and idealism, and in different ways embrace hardship, asceticism and self-sacrifice....


....It might also be that Hollywood doesn't have the stomach for this war.

My question would be: does the U.S. need a huge military--and perhaps a war for them to go on--partly to deal with people, mainly young men, who would otherwise be very difficult? And: what happens when they come home?

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