The news cycle has offered a stark reminder recently of the ever-widening gulf between civilian and military cultures in America.
It kicked off with the Bowe Bergdahl affair. The president’s assertion that the trade of five Taliban commanders for Bergdahl was justified due to a sacred duty he had to bring this “kid” home was met with a lot of head-scratching by both veterans and active duty men and women.
Fine. Maybe if we were talking about a Kyle Carpenter, Dakota Meyer or a Michael Murphy, then the trade would have been justified in the eyes of those who served. (Although not in the eyes of Carpenter, Meyer or Murphy, I’d argue – they’d never agree to trade their salvation for the enemy’s freedom).
But while most of America reflexively rejoiced at the news of Bergdahl’s release, most combat veterans immediately began to ask if the trade of five enemy commanders was worth someone who mysteriously wandered off his post in the middle of a combat zone, prompting months of fruitless and deadly search and rescue missions on his behalf.
This reaction isn’t politically driven; it is the natural outcome of a culture that values earned honor, reputation, and character over notions that anything is inherently “owed” to anyone by virtue of wearing the uniform or touching terra firma in a warzone.
In the military you have to earn your honor and your comrades’ pledged devotion to sacrifice their lives on your behalf. And you don’t automatically acquire that badge honor for life the minute you take your oath or set foot in Afghanistan. That honor can be lost forever if you betray your friends’ trust or your country’s values.
Bergdahl lost his honor. I was in Afghanistan as a special operations pilot when Bergdahl was a prisoner. It was an open secret that he was a deserter, possibly a collaborator. From my perspective there was no great urgency to get him back, nor was there an appetite to risk more lives to find him.
Talk to the average man or woman on the front lines and they’ll tell you the trade wasn’t worth it. Not a chance, they’ll likely add.
Enough about that.
The recent collapse of Iraq under the ISIS blitzkrieg also sparked a very unique response from the veterans who fought in that country compared with the majority civilian opinion, and the majority opinion of most talking heads (including many former generals) on cable TV.
Young veterans who fought in the dusty, hot streets of Fallujah, Baghdad, Mosul, now openly joke, “Just give me some of my guys and some weapons and a plane ticket.”
“Let’s get the band back together for a reunion tour,” one of my friends, a former Marine machine gunner who fought during the surge, wrote on Facebook.
But before you roll your eyes and classify this knee-jerk reaction as the symptom of some testosterone-induced warriorness, it’s important to realize why these young men and women want to go back and fight.
It’s not to make their previous sacrifices “worth it,” or to retroactively justify the unrecoverable currency of their youths forever lost in the sands of Iraq. The overwhelming reason veterans want to go back to war in Iraq is because they feel like they owe it to the Iraqi people. The images of the decent people of Iraq are not just a photo or B-roll footage for them; they are memories emblazoned forever in minds, imprinted more deeply by the intensity of war.
TV commentators, pundits, and think-tank experts will talk about America’s strategic interests, deflecting Iran, appeasing our Arab partners, preserving or abandoning the Sykes-Picot borders. To those who never fought in Iraq, the overwhelming question is – “Is Iraq worth it?”
But to veterans who understand and remember the war as a personal experience, they don’t think in those terms. They ask – “Is it right to abandon those people in Iraq who risked their lives to support our cause?”
Veterans of Iraq also comprehend the reality of the evil against which they fought. To them it wouldn’t matter if those ISIS terrorists (who are descendants of al-Qaida in Iraq) took over Iraq, Fiji or a peninsula in Antarctica. In their minds, evil like that should never be allowed to flourish or take root anywhere in the world. Stopping the spread of mass murder and oppression is always “worth it.”
There’s no doubt that there are a lot creeps and thugs in Iraq, including in its government, who don’t deserve our help. But there are also many Iraqis who risked everything — their wealth, lives and their families — to support and defend U.S. forces during the Sunni Awakening.
Those who risked everything to support the U.S. war effort in Iraq earned that rare brand of honor that the military so judiciously awards for courage, and definitively rescinds for cowardice or betrayal.
The decent people of Iraq have, in the eyes of those who knew them, earned the promise of our salvation.
Nolan Peterson is a former Air Force Special Operations pilot and veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He is now a war correspondent and cofounder of BlueForceTracker.com.