Separating War from the Vets

On Veterans Day, Americans make a point of thanking men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. But this appreciation has the effect of shielding today’s perpetual warfare from the critical examination it deserves, writes former Marine Matthew Hoh.

By Matthew Hoh

I get lots of notes thanking me for my service on Veterans Day. I am grateful and appreciative. My friends, both veterans and active duty service members, receive the same affections of respect and esteem and, of course, value those sentiments.

There comes a time, however, when a line is breached. I have difficulty receiving a message from a teacher thanking me for what I have done for my country. I blush at the handshakes, emails, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets and banners from police officers, firefighters, nurses, nonprofit organizers and volunteers, clergy, utility workers and good parents; people who do more on a daily basis for our nation than I have ever done.

President Barack Obama places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., in honor of Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Please understand me. What these men and women do everyday contributes more to the well being and welfare of this nation than anything done overseas over the last decade in our country’s name. (With the exception of a relatively small, dedicated cadre who have actually dealt with the several dozen or few hundred terrorists that truly threaten the United States.)

I have no greater pride than in the Marines and Sailors I led in Iraq. They were consummate professionals: tough, disciplined and compassionate. They took care of one another, adhered to vague, illogical and unfair rules of engagement and followed, to the best they could, a mission even more vague, illogical and unfair.

What they did, they did for one another and they would do so again. They deserve the admiration of a nation for their performance and their conduct in situations impossible to understand unless you were there. However, their performance in their duties must be divorced and recognized separately from the misbegotten and politically expedient narrative that we live in a safer America today because of an invasion of Iraq and an 11-year occupation of Afghanistan.

What allows for this unquestioning acceptance of a patriotic and romantic yet specious narrative? Maybe it is the fear resident from the horror of the September 11 attacks? An act carried out by what history will detail to have been a band of madmen and not a force worthy of a war or the designation as an existential threat.

Maybe it is a form of collective guilt, shame or inferiority for not having served? This attitude within the American public has manifested itself in elected officials and prevents questioning, critical thought or oversight pertaining to anything military in Washington, DC.

Maybe it is a fawning media? Desperate for ratings, pressured by competition and needful of access, the media has been easily suckered by the world’s largest and best-trained public relations machine, run by the Pentagon.

Maybe it is even a growth in the general knowledge and understanding of war by the American public? I mean, who needs a draft, because, thanks to video games: “There’s a soldier in all of us.

Whatever the reason, it is tragic and absurd that we confuse the hard work and selfless sacrifice of most veterans with overly simplistic, factually lazy and politically manipulative stories of freedom and liberty, of defense of economic prosperity, or of holding back barbarians at our gates.

I am quite certain Godwin’s Law is in effect as many read this, but for every analogy or comparison to World War II and Nazi Germany in modern American foreign policy discourse, a referencing of the tragedies of Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia would be more appropriate. For these conflicts are not just closer in time and generation, but are more similar in their substance and form, and in their loss and inconclusiveness, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than the Good War is to the Afghan and Iraq Wars.

Do not be misled, we lost the Iraq War and we are losing the Afghan War. Not that either of those wars were worth winning, which, of course, is little consolation to the families of the dead and maimed.

Despite these losses; despite the disgraces of Generals McChrystal, Caldwell, Petraeus and Allen, all undone by vainglorious stupidity; despite the level of the Pentagon’s fiscal profligacy, one without equal in the modern world; and despite a suicide epidemic that only the satirical publication The Onion seems willing to take head on, the military is the most widely respected institution in the United States.

Veterans deserve a great share of the responsibility for such foolishness. For too long we have been placed on a pedestal, immune from criticism or investigation, in some cases receiving adoration and reverence approaching clerical or pontifical status among the American public.

Have we, those no longer in service, met our obligations to those still serving and to those who will serve? Have we honestly and critically examined our most recent histories and reported, candidly, what we saw, what we did, what we accomplished, whether or not it was worth it, and what it meant?

Maybe it is too soon for such introspection. Many of the more poignant, sincere and astute recollections and summaries of war have been published decades after the homecomings. Perhaps it is just too soon for many of us. However, as a friend of mine reminds me, for veterans to not speak genuinely, but rather to silently and graciously accept accolades of unwarranted praise and glory, ensures propaganda lives on as history.

Maybe in time my generation will produce memoirists like Kotolwitz, Sledge or Fussel, novelists like Vonnegut, Heller or Mailer, or films like Paths of Glory, MASH or The Deer Hunter. With a few exceptions, most reporting of the Afghan and Iraq wars by veterans has been simply that: reporting.

This absence of critical examination and of serious questioning of the wars by veterans has allowed for an infirmity to take hold within the American people that disallows for questioning warriors and, to the benefit of a few, expedites policies of perpetual war.

Thank you for your sympathies on the hardship of war, they are right and deserved. However, please truly consider the merit of crediting the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq for the continuing liberties, freedoms and welfare of the United States. I did not see any al Qaeda in Afghanistan or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, nor do I know many Afghans who are benefiting from Karzai’s kleptocracy or Iraqis who are grateful for the horrors of civil war.

Rather than receive thanks undeserved, I would prefer we hold ourselves accountable for our mistakes and our failures. Until that time, I will read the below poem each Veterans Day. I have seen more of what it speaks of in war and its aftermath than I ever did of any freedom or liberty.


By Siegfried Sassoon

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Matthew Hoh is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy ( Matthew formerly directed the Afghanistan Study Group, a collection of foreign and public policy experts and professionals advocating for a change in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Matthew has served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and on U.S. Embassy teams in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He resides in North Carolina. [This article originally appeared at the HuffingtonPost and is republished with the author’s permission. The link is ]

9 comments for “Separating War from the Vets

  1. paschn
    November 20, 2012 at 14:54

    Midas turned all things he touched into Gold

    The colonial possession of Israel, formally called AmeriKa, turns everything it touches into filth. be very careful to whom you give your precious dollars to aid those in need.

  2. paschn
    November 18, 2012 at 10:21

    Those car-ass stickers which read “Support our troops” are a money making bit of fluff that have not only made beaucup money for various groups but have slapped totally undeserved legitimacy on “serving” the rogue government and it’s masters in the City of London. Another bit of slick salesmanship, “Support our troops, not the war” has done it’s nefarious good at abstractly deifying “service”.

    Rather than posting these misleading car-ass stickers which glamorize killing for General Electric, Standard Oil, Motorola, the Central Banks, Israel et al, these impressionable, easily duped young would be much better served by pointing out the lies/hypocracy/evil of those who really benefit from blind faith whether it be prostitutes in D.C., rabid dogs of an illegal/terrorist state or pathological demons in board rooms. Seeking the truth of a matter from neutral sources is no more treasonous or cowardly than mindless service to liars and murderers is glorious or heroic. If you truly want to stop the suicides or waking to your own screams when the realization of the horrible and evil things you did for a twisted bunch of swine calling themselves our government, take off those phoney car-ass stickers and teach these mislead kids to look closely at the putrid grins from the dark urging them to “answer the call”. I am no less enraged or pissed about discovering the Gulf of Tonkin never happening decades ago than I am now. There are warriors who fight on their own shore when necessary to protect their OWN…and there are vicious barbarians who invade/slaughter/destroy thousands of miles away for leaders that will betray them the moment they set foot back on their own blood-soaked soil. “Our boys” have been duped into setting the former aside and proudly/ignorantly taking on the mantle of the latter. there are consequences to being ignorant. Just a few are tormented nightmares of foolish/cowardly deeds,(which they will ALL have to answer to their creator for), and self destruction. Teaching them the truth will do much more to preventing their plight than your blind support for their misinformed/misplaced “heroics” while they place a bullet into the head of a person who has done them no harm standing in his own home, on his own soil in his own country then bad-mouthing him for not showing his deep appreciation to the barbarians perpetrating the evil.

  3. Christopher M. Tucker
    November 16, 2012 at 22:20

    Very important argument, which nicely is perfectly integrated into political scientist’s broader strategic vision for fixing systemic root problems eating away at heart of American society, democracy & security…see, (11/12/12) “Calling for Occupy Alliance with US Veterans & 2014 Surgical Strike vs. Oligarchy by America’s 99%”

  4. Hillary
    November 15, 2012 at 20:25

    John on November 15, 2012 at 7:58 pm said:The plan was to bomb the Panama Canal and shut the Pacific fleet off from the Atlantic. The bombers would only fly one way. He would then land troops in Eastern Canada and if I remember correctly, possibly Mexico.
    No John that plan was Saddam Hussein’s plan with his WM D’s.
    Veterans suicides presently 1 per day , thousands are homeless and crippled etc.

    According to G.W Bush war is excellent for the economy as he told the Argentinian President.

    • bobzz
      November 17, 2012 at 11:28

      Hillary, I knew of this from Bush, but did not have the reference. Thx for the link.

  5. John
    November 15, 2012 at 19:58

    From what I’ve read Rehmat, Hitler had plans to attack NA after taking Europe. The plan was to bomb the Panama Canal and shut the Pacific fleet off from the Atlantic. The bombers would only fly one way. He would then land troops in Eastern Canada and if I remember correctly, possibly Mexico. The fact that Britain held and Russia toasted him, made it all fall apart.
    I feel sorry for soldiers sent for wars that have no just cause. I don’t know about the USA, but in many cases outside the USA they don’t get the medical care or other assisitance they need when they come home. I do know that many didn’t get the help they needed after the stupid Vietnam War.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    November 15, 2012 at 16:56

    The essence of leadership in every epoch, whether motivated by laudable sentiments or merely the deliberate call to the exigent task, has been the ability to speak those words we hardly dare speak to ourselves. They are not words unknown to us, and we crave to hear them spoken by those who would lead us. But our leaders have not spoken. They have not lied, but they remained silent when there was most certainly something to be said. Those words are the acknowledgment of the truth we would rather not admit, even to ourselves. This Marine has found the courage to say them. And he has said them very well indeed. Wallowing in patriotism will not undo the calamity we have perpetrated on behalf of misguided leaders or a strategy executed without a rational objective. That he is a former Marine, Mr. Ho’s commentary epitomizes that often heard lament among senior leaders: “We can’t keep the best ones.”

  7. ORAXX
    November 15, 2012 at 13:15

    “What they did, they did for one another and they would do so again.” One of the realizations I took away from my own experience in Viet Nam was the knowledge that, come hell or high water, no matter how misguided the mission, the American soldier will ALWAYS fight for his buddy. The command structure knows this, and it is one of the enduring strengths of the American military. Sadly, it is also something that has been unconscionably exploited by chicken hawks like G.W. Bush and Dick Cheney and the rest of the neo-cons.

  8. rosemerry
    November 15, 2012 at 11:48

    “They took care of one another,” BINGO! This seems to be the main responsibility of US soldiers sent into battle- to ensure their buddies are protecte, or if necessary, avenged by further attacks.
    As for 9/11, even if it were a bunch of madmen or islamist terrorists, it was certainly done with complicity of the Homeland authorities (!), and was one of the very very few times anyone outside the USA actually attacked the Homeland and caused civilian deaths.
    War for revengeagainst any known or unknown suspects or just for ideology is never justified.

Comments are closed.