November 11, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Veterans of Endless Wars
Today marks the 97th anniversary of the ceasefire that marked the end of the First World War. Whether commemorated as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or Veterans' Day, the date observes the end of the fighting on the Western Front. To a larger point, the day serves as a chance to reflect on the burden borne by veterans who have served during what has been almost a century of peace, pierced by wars—both huge or hidden, acknowledged or denied.
There likely will never be a ceremony marking the ceasefire of today’s war against the violent extremism and proxy gamesmanship that inflame many of today’s persistent conflicts. Hopefully, a ceasefire can eventually be achieved in Syria. However, given the complexity and history of the conflict, the fighting will continue at a rate deemed tolerable only by those not doomed to tolerate it. The same can be said for Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and other countries plagued with deep-rooted divisions and tensions. The damage done to these countries is made up of catastrophic societal upheavals and countless individual tragedies.
Likewise—though of course on a different scale—the veterans of foreign intervention in these armistice-less wars bear their own burdens. This is particularly true in countries such as the United States, where an increasingly shrinking percentage of the population serves in the military at a time of increasing operational tempo. Just .04% of the overall U.S. population is currently in the military; the percentage of all living veterans in the U.S. is 7.3%, with more than 50% of those veterans over 60 years old. The U.S. has struggled to properly provide services to veterans across the board, and to combat veterans in particular. Just as modern conflicts defy neat closure or resolution, so too do the myriad of challenges and ailments brought on by fighting them.
As the U.S. seeks to minimize—politically, economically, logistically, diplomatically—the costs of its military interventions, an even smaller percentage of military personnel are bearing the burden of repeated combat tours. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, the first U.S. combat death in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, was a member of Delta Force with 14 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the length of time varies depending on the nature of the tour of duty, 14 is a staggering and an unhealthy number of combat cycles, and is likely shared by other members of the Special Operations Forces.
Providing effective and timely services for U.S. veterans has been a challenge for decades, yet the problem is now worsening as the overall population of veterans is aging and current active duty members suffer from the effects of repeated combat. In addition to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and brain injuries stemming from the concussive effects of surviving improvised explosive devices (IEDs), combat veterans of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan—and soon, Syria—also suffer from the absence of tangible success in the larger mission. There is a palpable sense of frustration, outrage, and weary resignation for combat veterans of important victories achieved at great cost, such as the battles for Fallujah, Marjah, and Kamdesh, which have all been reversed by the tide of extremism.
Nostalgia and distance threaten to make the horrors of past wars seem less so, and past victories more definitive than was the reality at the time. Wars past were as vicious, and probably more so, than many modern conflicts; many dragged on as many do today. What has changed is the significant shift from bipolar wars that could be ended with the signing of a ceasefire or flags on a hill to today’s amorphous conflicts, in which no piece of paper can quiet the fighting for very long. The costs of these conflicts, and of veterans fighting endless wars, will persist far into the future. ‘On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,’ today’s wars burn on.
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