On Veterans Day, I always think of my father, a military man whose remains lie at Arlington National Cemetery, surrounded by the pristine white markers of America's war dead. I always come away from my parents' burial place freshly attuned to the special gravity we sense in all war veterans. They are initiates into the deep mystery of mortality. On Veterans Day, the nation acknowledges their service. But discharging the nation's debt to them requires more than a simple salute. Americans must try to understand what our brave and selfless military men and women have actually been asked to do.
Today's observance has its origins in the World War I armistice, and takes its resonance from traditions set by the World War II generation, of which my dad was part. But by now there are more than 2 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them still young. For all of the tribulations of the legions of warriors who went before them, veterans of these contemporary wars have been plunged into complexities of risk and moral anarchy of which my father's generation knew little.
In the world wars that still define how we memorialize soldiers and justify armed combat, there was a clear distinction between operations at the "front," the death zone of combat, and less threatening activities of the "rear," the realm of preparation and support. But what marks the front off from the rear in Iraq or Afghanistan, where the majority of casualties are inflicted by anonymously planted improvised explosive devices and by suicide assaults -- each striking anywhere, anytime? Veterans of these wars have confronted mortality not in episodes, but in a generalized condition, with threats coming as much from mundane tasks as combat missions, and less from an identified enemy than from everyone.
But moral risk matches physical danger in these places. In a military ethic going back at least 2,000 years, the boundary separating noncombatant civilian from enemy fighter is essential to a just war. In World War II, which killed millions of civilians, the distinction was acutely observed, if mainly in awareness of its violation. Yet in asymmetrical wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy itself is as elusive and undefined as the front and the rear, the crucial moral demarcation on which a trooper's sense of right and wrong depends can be impossible to discern.
But what if the moral question facing today's fighters is directed not primarily at events within the war, but at the war itself? Honoring the service of men and women who risked everything in Iraq or Afghanistan is complicated when more and more Americans see the wars themselves as a mistake. As the misbegotten character of the Vietnam War was faced by its generation, many veterans were made to feel blamed -- a grotesque compounding of Vietnam's horror. No one will tolerate a like scapegoating of veterans today. But the dilemma remains: How to commend individuals who, acting only nobly, were ordered into an unnecessary war, which is by definition ignoble?
There is disgrace in what the United States has done in southwest Asia since 2001. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans remain the so far uncalculated measure of what America inflicted. Having so misused the patriotism of its own military members fighting abroad, are we now misusing their proper status as honored veterans at home to avoid reckoning with a national dishonor? When politicians celebrate the individual virtues of veterans by praising the American military as the best fighting force in the world, are they deflecting the harsh truth that both in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon behemoth has been fought to a draw by primitive forces? If the most bloated military budget on the planet can be matched by impoverished tribal warlords, why is that budget sacrosanct? Its defenders use the honoring of veterans to shore up the very militarism to which the veterans themselves have been sacrificed.
In the precincts of Arlington where the graves are fresh, this contradiction is palpable, offensive, and deeply sad. Citizens, therefore, have a double obligation to greet veterans by saying, "Thank you for your service." But in fact, our unnecessary wars are defined by the disservice they do to veterans. Political exploitation of their heroism keeps in place the pillars of the next mistake. And it too will have heroes.
James Carroll is a columnist for The Boston Globe.