At Arlington National Cemetery, it was the birthdays that got to me. This was a couple years ago, and my brother and I were visiting Section 60, where they put our generation of veterans.
I walked to the row of the newest graves and there, inscribed, I read: 1990. 1991. 1992. I stopped, startled by the unexpected dates. I don’t know why, but it never really hit home for me until that moment that, of course, this war would eventually start eating the children of the 90s.
I was born in 1983, the year Michael Jackson released the music video for “Thriller.” I’d gone to Iraq, come back and left the Marine Corps before some of these kids had even been old enough to sign up. Kids born in the year of Madonna’s “Vogue,” James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Kriss Kross’ “Jump.”
This weekend I should be thinking about the Marines I know who died, all of them born in my decade. And I do. I think about them all the time. But Memorial Day always seemed to me to be a holiday best suited for healing wounds from past wars. Quiet reflection in a time of peace.
Who knows when that will happen? President Obama will likely end his time in office as the first U.S. President to spend the entirety of his two terms at war.
And since the conflicts overseas show little sign of dying down, this is the new normal. The kids joining the Marine Corps now, some of them as young as 17, have grown up in an America that, for as long as they’ve been aware of a world outside our borders, has been at war.
We try to ignore this unpleasant fact. We declared an end to combat mission in Iraq in 2010. The combat mission in Afghanistan supposedly ended in 2014. Still, we kept thousands of troops in both countries.
Their mission, we were told, “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” They would conduct, “supervise, train and assist” missions. They wouldn’t constitute “boots on the ground.”
So when they die, our government does what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls “semantic backflips” to avoid saying that our troops are in combat. At a recent press conference where journalists repeatedly asked the Pentagon press secretary whether or not we were “in combat,” he had the unenviable job of explaining that, well, they’re “in harm’s way” or “in combat situations,” or “they have found themselves under fire.”
Such evasions grate on me, especially around Memorial Day. This year’s war dead — nine so far — didn’t slip, trip and find themselves in combat. We sent them there to fight a war on our behalf, whether we like to acknowledge that or not. They went, they fought, and they died.
So my sadness this weekend, the same sadness I felt walking through Arlington, is mixed with something else. I can’t simply reflect on the dead of my war. I can’t simply memorialize.
Thinking through the legacy of my war carries with it the uncomfortable knowledge that, years after I left the Corps, we’re still there. Gen. George C. Marshall’s claim that “a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War” has long since been disproven. We can, and we do — so long as it’s fought by a fraction of the population and, for the most part, kept out of sight.
What remains to be seen is what a war that lasts so long does to a democracy, especially when so much of that war is conducted in the shadows. I already know some of what it does to those who serve.
Soon the first children of the 2000s will be able to sign up, the babies of the new millennium, of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” and, appropriately enough, Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.” Give another year, and we may very well be seeing kids join up who’ve spent their whole lives in a country at war, whether we call it that or not.
Perhaps I’m wrong to focus on the dates. I suppose the year doesn’t matter so much. When I think of the dead I knew, I always remember the words of a Vietnam veteran, telling me about his best friend in the world, a sweet kid, a child of the 1950s, of the year of Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” and Hank Williams’ “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.”
He spoke very simply of his friend, what he was like and why he was the sort of guy you could count on, even if he might not have been the best soldier in the world. And then he looked up and told me, “He was 19, and he always will be.”
Klay is author of “Redeployment,” and most recently of the Brookings essay “Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”
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