remember reading a political cartoon from I believe the 1980s, in which
a child was talking to his father about the people on the wall of names
at the Vietnam war memorial. He asked his dad about veterans of the
next war, and the father said "Next war won't have veterans, son."
He was talking about the threat of nuclear war. I didn't get that. When
I read it, at my age, in the years after we sent troops to Afghanistan,
I compared the phrase to what I knew about modern wars, and I thought
that maybe the father was right, because the whole idea of veterans, to
my mind, depended upon the idea of remembering a war that was long OVER.
And the Afghanistan war wasn't over. It had only just begun. It had not
hit the classic four-year limit for American wars, as established by
the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II.
It still isn't
over. But. It's been going on long enough that there's plenty of people
who were in it, and now aren't, so it has veterans by our basic definition. There are people who have at last completed their tour of
combat, returned home, and retired from active service.
picture them marching in a Memorial Day parade. I can't picture them
dressed in their finest dress parade uniform like the old geezers
shuffling along behind the World War II banner. The way we've done
veterans here in America, the idea is to celebrate the war as much as
the soldiers. And there's not much glory to remember in the Afghanistan
war, nor great controversy over its atrocities, nor grief for the
soldiers caught up in it, as there has been for the veterans of Vietnam. Nobody remembers it much at all.
I never recall seeing Korean War veterans marching. Maybe they do and I
don't notice. Few enough people care about the that one these days
either. The only Korean War museum I ever saw shut down for lack of
I think the father wound up being right because the
next wars that the U.S. fought were not very much like the kind of war
that produces Heroic Veterans To Celebrate. The first Gulf War was
measured in hours and not years. Not enough time for much of anything.
The second Gulf War was a jolly good fight and then a disaster of
administration, and over the years it petered out, so there's no
dramatic finish to it, like the bells pealing victory all over America
or helicopters escaping from Saigon or a sudden hush over all the land
at 11:00 on November 11.
The Iraq war didn't have a real victory and it didn't have a real defeat. I keep forgetting whether or not it ended at all.
But I know our soldiers are still in Afghanistan. That war never ended.
So I think the father was wrong. The Afghanistan war does have
veterans. But not the kind who march in parades when they go back home.
Just the kind who have been in so long that they know all the tricks to
survive. The kind of veteran who looks at a young fellow straight out of
boot camp and says to him, "you have a lot to learn if you want to
The kind of veteran who never wants to hear a fresh young soldier saying he'll die for his country.
More like Vietnam than France.
Maybe the father was right. The wars of my youth can't produce
photogenic veterans. There's been no heroic struggle to save my country,
or any country really, since the Afghanistan war began. You don't get
parade veterans out of Afghanistan. you don't get Remembrance Day or any kind of reverent national anniversary. You get tired men who just want to
go home and not worry about being shot.
And the anniversary you get is for the day that you learned your son wouldn't make it home.