Footnote from Greece on Veterans Day 2021
I will be spending this Veterans Day in Greece, the birthplace of my grandparents. They all left their native island Chios in the last days of the war liberating the Greeks from Ottoman rule. They had to escape as the Greek Chians had endured hundreds of years of oppression by Italian Genoese and Ottomans, and hard fighting of the War of Independence (memorialized in the painting in 1824 by Eugène Delacroix The Massacre at Chios). Shortly before my grandparents’ birth in the 1890s, a massive earthquake killed thousands of islanders. Like millions of Americans, they emigrated to follow their dream of opportunity and escape hardship, never to return.
I write this as a retired Army general and physician, feeling that many fellow veterans and servicemembers sense that the collective soul of the country and its “dream” has been withering. America no longer stands out as the country that offered hope, freedom, and a new life that inspired my grandparents and millions of other immigrants to daringly adventure out of their homelands over thousands of miles. My friends and colleagues anxiously observe partisan combat and political mayhem sabotaging the core values and principles that motivated them to wear the uniform and risk their lives. The upcoming elections of 2022 and 2024 look to be even bloodier and worry them even more. We military have good reason to wonder how many young men and women in the future can be recruited and what would motivate them to serve. We also anxiously ponder what can be done to sustain national security, peace, and stability.
Listening to soldiers over the past 50 years sheds light on the motivations and mentality that sustained their service. As expected, a surge of enlistment followed the attacks of Sept. 11 and the call to defend the country against terrorists. As it has for thousands of years, a surprise attack united the country. But it did not endure. By 2003-4, many soldiers recall feeling disillusioned by the conduct of the war and its stalled progress. Even in the hype of capturing Saddam and taking down the Iraqi government, the events on the ground frustrated them. They questioned their leadership and the tactics on the ground. There were strong signs that the fighting force was losing confidence in the mission. Nonetheless, many wanted to continue to serve and stayed in uniform. Joining the military as young men and women had given their lives meaning and purpose. They had formed relationships with fellow warfighters and gained focus that they had not experienced as adolescents. They were fighting for each other and the strong bonds that connected them. For many soldiers that I have treated, a call to a buddy has been the lifeline that saved them from suicide.
When I reflect on Veterans Day, I don’t think of high-minded national strategy and political ideology to defend the nation. In fact, I feel rather cynical about the customary rhetoric and declarations of war.
Rhetoric and ideology do not sustain armies. Even in ancient Athens, the ruling class had to offer citizenship to young men to recruit them into their armies. Rather, I think of the heart and soul of the soldiers deciding to expose their life and limb. I think of the memories they carry and the way that combat changed their lives. I think of my father and the airmen who served with him in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I recall the fellow soldiers I have known over the past 50 years. Many heard a call to defend the country and enlisted. As time passed, many could no longer explain or discern their motives but stayed on active duty to fulfill an unspoken obligation to each other and the country.
I wonder this Veterans Day about the take-away from 20 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Over 2.8 million men and women deployed to combat since Sept. 11. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan has been another gut punch for many. The scenes of military helicopters and cargo planes evacuating Americans from Kabul are vivid reminders of a hasty withdrawal from Vietnam and the enduring impact of another long slog of combat. Many warriors who served in Vietnam, and many who fought in Afghanistan, came away with few traces of damage and impairment. Others did not. All are changed, and all have shared experiences of being in uniform.
A number of veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq have a growing awareness of the moral ambiguity that has wreaked havoc on their conscience, as there was no easy “right and wrong.” Soldiers wrestle with mixed emotions of guilt, shame, grief, and anger, as well as pride in doing their duty. Even if they can’t put words to it, warfighters carry the emotional and moral burden of a nation at war.
If I think about Veterans Day through a cross-cultural and psychological lens, then I try to discern the essence of soldiering that has shaped the lives and character of so many young men and women.
Recognizing that young people — late adolescents and young adults — are passing through some of the most dynamic years of their lives, they often lack the best words for their motivations and well-formed ideas about military service. The call to duty comes from a deep feeling in their souls or spur-of-the-moment instincts to ‘do something important and different.’ The impact of that decision endures for the rest of their lives.
Without the draft, most Americans never serve in uniform. But many of us who have served carry a lasting commitment to the dream that inspired the generations that immigrated to America and sustained them to fashion a better life.
Many of us do not wish to be ‘thanked for our service.’ We want to see that this nation affirms the principles that strengthen our democracy and national security.
The right words are missing in the hot and divisive rhetoric that dominates politics. We do not hear the words that unite this country in its commitment to a common purpose, bonding us to each other. All good military leaders know that effective fighting forces are united in spirit and purpose. Good soldiers are not self-serving but belong to strong teams with clear missions. Self-serving agendas weaken nations and armies and lead to mission failure.
Common enemies unite. The challenge is to find common purpose and a shared ethos. I will be listening this Veterans Days for words that unite us all and inspire dreams. Such words honor our Veterans and their service.
Stephen N. Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general, is on the Executive Board of the Center for Ethics and Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania. He directs the Community Resilience Campaign for Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn. Follow him on Twitter @SteveXen.