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War fatigue

What happens when America is at war and no one is paying attention?

One surprising aspect of the unfolding story of Bowe Bergdahl, the former prisoner of war, is the public's apparent interest in again discussing the war in Afghanistan. It's certainly been a long time coming. Opinion polls and military enlistment figures suggest record lows in the number of  Americans who support, pay attention to, or serve in the war on terrorism. As a nation we have internalized our longest military conflict; it has suffused the social, political, and cultural body. The war is not something the nation is doing; it's simply something that is.

To a certain extent this is understandable. Those of us who were adults when combat operations began on October 7, 2001 understood the context for war, largely accepted and supported it, and for a long time went about our lives understanding its necessity. Today, there are privates in the Army who were still in pre-school on 9/11. To them, we have always been a nation at war. There have always been flag-draped coffins, Delta Force raids, black holes in federal budgets, and a perfunctory, indoctrinated "I support the troops" indemnification before any discussion about military affairs. To the 17-year-old soldier or civilian, life without war is only theoretical.

Accordingly, the war exists for most of us in the same nebulous realm as the futures market, steel production, foreign trade, and satellite maintenance. It is at once a part of our lives and entirely removed from it. We accept as a society that there is a war on the other side of the planet and there are soldiers there and they sometimes are killed and there are bad guys and those bad guys are killed in greater number, and there are civilian deaths, and soldiers earn medals and secure buildings and sometimes helicopters are downed. We are trying to rebuild a country and the people don't necessarily want us there and there is corruption in their government and among our defense contractors and we have spies and commandos and we probably make lamentable deals with awful nations to do terrible things. The president gives speeches and generals address think tanks and cabinet members give press conferences and by and large everyone is fine with this. Not accepting — nobody wants dead Americans or collateral damage — but none of this dominates water-cooler conversations or disrupts our plans to hit the supermarket after work and maybe take the kids to Denny's for pancakes.

The war goes on, and it is like the background noise in a restaurant. As long as nothing disrupts the murmur, we hardly take notice. But just as when a waiter drops a water glass, we notice when the noise has changed, and we start to listen. We turn and look and ask what happened, who did it, how did it happen, and was the glass full. A rescued prisoner of war is such a disruption — how many people knew that there was a POW to rescue in the first place?

Consider three well-known events in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that caught our attention. When Private First Class Jessica Lynch was reported missing in action in 2003, a photograph of in her woodland camouflage uniform, a hint of yellow hair peeking from her cap, an American flag for a backdrop became an arresting image of the war in Iraq. She was not the image of an M.I.A. we'd grown up with, and yet she somehow seemed to come from central casting as the new face of all-American tenacity. She was a member of Future Farmers of America and was voted Miss Congeniality at the county fair. Her father told reporters that she said about the Iraq War, "We need to do it. I'm not afraid to do it."

One week after her capture, U.S. Central Command announced the "successful rescue mission of a U.S. Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq" and confirmed that the soldier in question was PFC Lynch. Six days later, she was on the front of Newsweek under the main cover line Saving Private Lynch. The piece described the special operations mission as a "bold raid" resulting in "the first U.S. prisoner to be rescued from behind enemy lines since World War II." She was found in the hospital "hiding in her bed." She was flown to a military hospital in Germany where surgeons reported that she had not been shot, and later amended their statement to say, no, she had been shot.

The Washington Post quoted an unnamed U.S. official who said at the time of Lynch's capture she "was fighting to the death," and that she "did not want to be taken alive." She emptied her rifle on Iraqi soldiers "even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds." The Iraqis descended on her bloodied body and stabbed her. After U.S. Central Command released images of the rescue, they added gravely, "Some brave souls put their lives on the line to make this happen, loyal to a creed that they know that they'll never leave a fallen comrade."


The front page of the New York Daily News on April 2, 2003

Months later the story was questioned — though long after the war effort had reaped publicity of inestimable value. In the end we learned that Jessica Lynch had not been stabbed. She had not been shot. She never fired her rifle because it was jammed. U.S. commandos stormed the hospital but met no resistance because there was no resistance. One Iraqi doctor present described it as a Rambo movie. "But we were not Rambo," he said. "We just waited to be told what to do." This is a far cry from a quote in Time in which an officer said, quite preposterously, "It was like Black Hawk Down except nothing went wrong."

Lynch later said of the exaggerated story of her rescue: "Yeah, I don't think it happened quite like that."

To be sure, Lynch was part of a terrible ambush and brutal combat. She was severely injured. But those injuries are believed to have been a result of a rocket-propelled grenade that hit Lynch's Humvee, and a collision with another Army truck that followed. One Army medical report found injuries consistent with rape, presumably sustained during a period of unconsciousness. Her Iraqi doctors vehemently deny this. Lynch was unconscious and does not recall. She was brought to the hospital and Iraqis treated her for the injuries sustained in the ambush. "When she was brought there she was fighting for her life," said Dr. Jamal al-Saeidi, the surgeon who treated her. Lynch said in an interview, "Yeah, [the Iraqi doctors] actually did help me. They were more helpful than harmful. They actually — you know, I had one woman, she rubbed my back and sang to me at night. And, you know, they gave me crackers and juice. You know, they were helpful. They weren't there to harm me."

Jessica Lynch is not responsible for the hyperbolic coverage of her capture and rescue, nor of the Defense Department's peddling of a false narrative. Indeed, the moment she was given the spotlight, she began work to straighten the story, disclaiming any personal act of heroism and revealing that she felt used, "because [Defense Department officials] weren't correcting [the story].... they were letting the stories go on and on and no one was saying anything about it." She's been forthright, humble, and embarrassed by the coverage. What is perhaps most exasperating is that the story would have resonated even without the fraudulent details purveyed by vested political interests. That initial photograph of Lynch in uniform was a dropped glass in a restaurant, and said so much about the nature of war today, and of the risks and of the young people we've sent to fight it. The story required no embellishment for us to pay attention and ask questions. One thing is true. Her patriotism is unimpeachable.

On June 1, 2002, the New York Times reported that Pat Tillman, a football player for the Arizona Cardinals, had left the N.F.L. and his multi-million-dollar contract to join the military with hopes of becoming an Army Ranger — the first football player to do such a thing, it was reported, since World War II. Tillman kept his decision private, refusing to comment on his reasons and declining all interviews; he didn't want his move to be perceived as a publicity stunt. Still, it didn't stop anonymous speculation in the Times that "that someone close to Tillman died in the [September 11] attacks, but no one knows for sure."

Ten months later, the Defense Department announced that Tillman had been killed in action in Afghanistan after serving a previous tour in Iraq. He was killed, it was reported, "when his combat patrol was ambushed by anti-coalition forces." Details emerged from military officials that "his patrol vehicle came under attack" while his unit from the 75th Ranger Regiment "was patrolling one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border, in a valley where Al Qaeda and Taliban forces are known to cross into Afghanistan from Pakistan." An Afghan soldier was killed in the battle and two Americans were wounded. For his actions, Tillman was awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest medal for valor in the military, behind only the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor. His Silver Star citation read: "Caught between the crossfire of an enemy near ambush, Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire as he maneuvered his fire team to a covered position from which they could effectively employ their weapons on known enemy positions."


A fan holds up a sign for Pat Tillman before a game between the Arizona Cardinals and the New England Patriots in 2004 (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Tillman's was thus more than a story of heroism. A Silver Star Medal made his heroism an indisputable fact. So the following year, when the Army revealed that he hadn't been killed by al-Qaeda fighters, but by his fellow Rangers in an act of fratricide, and that the Army knew the truth within days of Tillman's death, public outrage was justified. The false narrative was not the result of the fog of war, but rather, an extensive cover-up by commanders and soldiers on the ground, and a misinformation campaign by general officers. Two years after his son's death, Tillman's father, Patrick, went public with the Army's continued obfuscations. "All I asked for is what happened to my son, and it has been lie after lie after lie." Even, it seems, when the Army told the truth, it was telling a lie. The Afghan soldier killed in the firefight was fighting alongside the Rangers. Even the peddled Pat Tillman biography, practically indistinguishable from the back packaging of a G.I. Joe action figure and a powerful recruiting tool, was inaccurate. According to his fellow soldiers, Tillman was against the war. Specialist Russell Baer, a close friend of Tillman, told the Nation, "We were outside of [an Iraqi city] watching as bombs were dropping on the town.... We were talking. And Pat said, ‘You know, this war is so fucking illegal.' And we all said, ‘Yeah.' That's who he was."

Just as in the case of Jessica Lynch, Tillman was a combat veteran and a patriot who acted bravely and honorably, and was responsible for none of the shameful exploitation of his service. All that followed his death were political decisions to maximize support of the war and bolster enlistment numbers. His death was enough to get our attention and remind us of the nature of warfare, that the heroes don't always survive for three acts and see the credits roll. Indeed, the questions that might have been asked could have prepared the nation for the I.E.D. threat that would haunt the years that followed. Tillman died because war is awful and unpredictable and sometimes soldiers die without fanfare. They are alive and then they are dead, and sometimes it is the result of enemy action, and sometimes it is friendly fire or roadside bombs.

Lastly, consider Bowe Bergdahl, the missing service member recently recovered from Afghanistan by the United States in exchange for five Taliban fighters. President Obama immediately announced Bergdahl's rescue in a Rose Garden ceremony, saying, "Sergeant Bergdahl has missed birthdays and holidays and the simple moments with family and friends, which all of us take for granted. But while Bowe was gone he was never forgotten." In a stoic but lovely address, the president spoke as a father and as a commander-in-chief, and claimed to speak for all Americans, saying, "we cannot wait for the moment when you are reunited and your son, Bowe, is back in your arms."

Did the White House underestimate the public's capacity to engage a story about the war? Did they expect anyone to ask questions?

To the average observer, the Bergdahl story was straightforward and frightening: a U.S. soldier on patrol went missing, was captured by foreign fighters, and spent years in enemy captivity. Like the previous examples, here was a big but simple event that would seem likely to attract just enough interest to remind the public that we are at war, and give people confidence in the war's leadership. Unlike the peddled narratives of Lynch and Tillman, however, which gave the war positive ink that can be measured in barrels (and eventual backlashes that hardly compared), the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance were insufficiently veiled and impossible to contain. Members of Tillman's unit couldn't talk because they were in Afghanistan fighting the war. Many of Bergdahl's teammates, however, have completed their enlistments and returned home, and had nothing to stop them from talking to Rolling Stone in 2012 and the Daily Beast in 2014. Still, it seems the White House was banking on the positive to outweigh the negative, and when questioned about reports that Bergdahl might have been a deserter, Susan Rice, the national security advisor, dismissed such claims, saying, "The point is he's back. He's going to be safely reunited with his family. He served the United States with honor and distinction."

Perhaps this is a cynical interpretation of the administration's actions. Maybe the president wasn't hoping to squeeze approval points from Bergdahl's return. But if that wasn't the case, why did the White House not simply release a neutral statement that we've brought the last American prisoner of war home and we look forward to bringing him back to health and investigating the circumstances of his disappearance? Even if the press and public turned hostile to the rescue, the president would have plenty of latitude to simply say, "Look, in keeping with centuries of military tradition, we don't just let deserters go. We find them and we put them on trial." But not to be uttered: "honor" and "distinction." Such words are to be found on the names, requirements, and citations of medals for valor. Rice defended her remarks by saying Bergdahl merited them because he enlisted during a time of war. But that's simply not enough. Not everyone in the Army is a hero.

There are thorny philosophical questions that should be addressed before the next major conflict. If we can be sure that the public is ever at risk of becoming inured to the horrors of a long war, how can political leaders keep the country engaged when such wars are launched? Or more uncomfortably yet, do we already know the answer? Days after Jessica Lynch was reported as being rescued, the number of Americans who said the war in Iraq was going "very well" jumped 13 points, outpacing optimism for both the wider war on terror and the war in Afghanistan. If the public's default state is disengagement, are leaders, on some level, justified in using moments of mass awareness to do whatever is possible to build momentum? Is it on some level their duty? The heated interest in Bergdahl, for example, suddenly has us all paying attention to Afghanistan again. How often has the phrase "senior Taliban leaders" come up in casual conversation in the last 10 years? We're saying it now. We're discussing the merits of negotiating with terrorists, considering the threats of yesterday, and asking how the actions of today might affect tomorrow.

Most of the negative aspects of the Bergdahl story were already publicly available thanks largely to Michael Hastings's reporting for Rolling Stone in 2012. Bergdahl's opinions were there for everyone to see. He was "ashamed to even be american" who felt "the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools" and told by an army that is "the biggest joke in the world." Had the public demonstrated true interest in the war effort, they wouldn't have been surprised by the news that he may have deserted. After all, in Bergdahl's own words, "The horror that is america is disgusting." Had the administration really thought anyone was paying attention, would they have seemingly tried to elide the detail of desertion and reach for the political halo? Bergdahl's release would have been the end of a story as opposed to the start of a much larger one. Did the White House underestimate the public's capacity to engage a story about the war? Did they expect anyone to ask questions? If not, it speaks poorly of both the leadership and the led.

But at least the public is now watching, and there is an opportunity in that. Earlier this month the president announced the withdrawal of 22,200 U.S. service members from Afghanistan. This is to be completed by next year and will leave behind a force of 9,800. That group would then withdraw by the end of 2016, thereby ending the war. This means the background noise to which we've grown accustomed over these 12 years and eight months will alter and soon disappear. The risk now is that we internalize the war's aftermath in the same manner that we internalized the war. The Defense Department confirmed last year that service members were killing themselves at a rate of one every 18 hours. Mental health services by the VA presently suffer severe delays, staffing shortages, mismanagement, and few protections for whistleblowers who might otherwise identify the root causes of the system's problems. Meanwhile, as of last year, of the roughly 2 million veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 50,000 were homeless or at risk of homelessness. These are terrible problems on top of the already catastrophic situation uncovered at VA hospitals across the country.

This new reality for returning veterans is horrible in a way different from war, but just as pressing. And as they accumulate, the public risks disengaging if only because it's easier that way, and because on some level we can rationalize it as someone else's problem. Let the veterans and the government sort it out, so we risk thinking. As we face these problems, and others we dare not imagine, in the years ahead it should not take shattered glass for us to quiet, listen, and ask questions. And when we get answers, skepticism is advised.


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