WASHINGTON -- The day I left Saigon, many eons ago in 1968, I remember pausing and looking at the faces of the American soldiers and officers standing around me at the airport. I kept wondering what would happen to them when and if they got home.
For six months, I had been dispatched around Vietnam, and I had spoken with hundreds of GIs, as well as their officers. I had come to the realization that, among them, there was no support -- none at all -- for the war. Two-star generals would take me aside and tell me what the real story was -- the press briefings, they told me, were largely false.
It seemed to many then that the war not only would never be won, but that it was unwinnable. I kept repeating to myself that North Vietnam's fight was infinite -- it would never give up -- while ours was finite and not only had a limit, but Hanoi and the Viet Cong knew it. And eventually that is what happened: We simply ran out of purpose.
It was the first loss in American history, and the men came back defeated, too. They were angry and hurt. No crowds at the airports greeted them. More likely, young kids called them "baby killers." All they could do was quietly nurse their real and psychic wounds.
Meanwhile, I kept wondering what it would do to a nation like ours, so accustomed to being the winner, to have so many men from a lost war back among us.
One would have thought that horrendous conflict, with 58,000 Americans killed, would have been enough to get the "thinkers" in the Pentagon and the White House to take a 12-step pledge to never again fight an unnecessary "small" war. Think again! It was a bare 20 years before those egocentric planners were picking up on Somalia and Lebanon, dress rehearsals for their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hardly anyone protested when we launched these actions after 9/11. Our leaders thought it was OK this time: After Vietnam, we had a volunteer army in order to squelch the discord of conscription. Yet now we are once again dealing with lost wars.
So far as I can see, no one has seriously attempted to analyze this war generation. But now, The Washington Post, in league with the nonprofit Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, has released a welcome study, "A Legacy of Pain and Pride." It was conducted with a representative sample of 819 adults who served or are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The results are dramatic and worrying, but somehow not surprising.
The long article, authored by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, starts on the paper's front page with: "More than half of the 2.6 million Americans dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation's veterans."
The major findings underline the confused purposes of these wars. Ninety percent, for instance, performed actions in war that made them feel proud, yet only 35 percent believe both wars were worth fighting. Only 53 percent of these veterans believed the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting, and just 44 percent in Iraq. Almost 900,000 (of 2.6 million) "strongly" believe the war in Iraq was not worth it.
Serving in the wars, even repeatedly, did not, however, seem to affect their patriotism. Indeed, many see themselves as "noble volunteers," the study says, "who stepped up to promote and protect U.S. interests while the rest of the nation went about its business as usual." In short, "more than 1.4 million vets feel disconnected from civilian life" and feel their sacrifices were barely noticed.
One of the programs that has ameliorated bad memories from the wars is the Veterans Administration's new GI bill, which pays for much of college education for veterans. Yet others wait for months for simple health care from the VA, and more than 600,000 veterans who were partially or totally disabled will have to receive lifelong financial support from the government.
It is difficult to make larger judgments from this data, but one could say that a large number of the servicemen and women were loyal to their fellows -- but not to the wars. They are trying hard to reconnect with American society but, despite all the yellow ribbons, it is not much easier than it was after the Vietnam War, although for different reasons.
We know from endless reports on America's reputation abroad that these two recent wars have played a singular role in lowering American prestige. But how the experience will play inside the men and women who fought them is still a question mark. There is only so long that one can be proud of your country's fighting a shameful, losing war and using you to fight it.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)
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