TIME Veterans

The Wages of Foolish Wars

My friend William McNulty, the co-founder of Team Rubicon, has a very smart piece linking the appalling suicide rate among recent veterans to the existential emptiness of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Just think of it this way: Say you were a Marine in Fallujah in 2007 or 2008. You experienced one of the few unalloyed successes of that benighted war: with the help of local tribes that had grown sick of Islamic extremism–and new counterinsurgency tactics provided by Gen David Petraeus–you helped rid the city of Al Qaeda in Iraq. You saw it become civil, peaceful.

You may have lost some friends in the effort. You may have been wounded yourself. But you could still rationalize it: “I won my war,” a Fallujah veteran once told me. And that was sort of true, until a few weeks ago. Now Fallujah has slipped back under the control of Al Qaeda. How on earth could that happen? There are more than a few theories–although I’d put my money on the anti-Sunni bias and incompetence of the Maliki regime. But that’s not the point.

McNulty makes an important distinction: between depression and despair. Depression is one of the prevalent symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It is a natural reaction to the unimaginable terror that comes with combat, the survivor’s guilt that comes with the loss of friends, the frustration that comes with the loss of a limb or a traumatic brain injury. Despair is more profound: it comes when you’ve experienced any or all of those things–and you come to the conclusion that it was all in vain, that there was no earthly reason to have invaded Iraq in the first place or extended the war in Afghanistan beyond the counter-terrorist effort to snuff out Al Qaeda.

The latter feeling is beginning to settle in among far too many veterans. Will McNulty, who has one of the biggest hearts on the planet, spends hours on the phone with veterans who are ready to pull the trigger. Recently, a Team Rubicon volunteer with whom I served during the tornado cleanup in Moore, Oklahoma, nearly hung himself–his girlfriend cut him down just in time. I remember this fellow as an utterly sweet kid, with a big smile and lots of enthusiasm for the work. I am stunned by the despair beneath that smile. McNulty isn’t. He has lived his life with it; he has had close friends kill themselves.

And he is pissed off, because none of it needed to happen. The rest of us should keep this in the very front of our brains as assorted ‘patriots’–who aren’t really patriots, just ill-informed military zealots–would have us go back into Iraq, or into Syria, or would try to replace the promising nuclear talks with Iran with an unprovoked act of aggression. The rest of us should make it our number one priority as citizens: to stop those who would needlessly shove us toward war.

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