We must not forget the lessons of the Iraq war

Lesley Toth
Lesley Toth

This past Tuesday marked the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, yet even with this sizable time frame and the benefits of hindsight, its legacy is still uncertain.

I was 20-years-old when the announcement of the U.S. military invasion was made. As my peers and I eagerly awaited our next birthdays to be fully and completely welcomed into the realm of official adulthood, some of our friends, neighbors, cousins and siblings were preparing for their first deployments. Some of them, like my husband, celebrated their 21st birthdays surrounded by sand and bullet-riddled houses. Many of them didn’t make it back to have that first beer with us.

We sent letters and care packages to our classmates, friends and loved ones and slapped those feel-good yellow magnets on our vehicles. But nothing was ever asked of us. Unless we had someone over there, the vast majority of us couldn’t be bothered between classes and our part-time jobs to really be invested in the outcome. The half-hearted protests on college campuses across the country proved that even though the comparison to Vietnam had been echoed nearly from the start, our generation responded very differently to our war.

Long before Brown University scholars released a report that the Iraq War has cost us much in blood and treasure (4,488 service members, more than 3,400 U.S. contractors, 100,000 Iraqis and a financial estimation as high as $3.9 trillion when the interest and medical care of veterans is factored) for little in return (terrorism increased dramatically during our occupation, civilians continue to die due to war-degraded conditions, and a devastated Iraqi infrastructure despite the $60 billion in U.S. reconstruction aid that was spent primarily on military and police if not otherwise wasted or abused fraudulently) many Americans had already written Iraq off as another boondoggle.

It’s as though  we’ve shrugged our collective shoulders and have already moved on with our lives. The frustrations and outrage that once seeped into every public discourse on the topic of Iraq have fizzled out, leaving an apathetic populous no longer in search of justifications.

Some of that change in public opinion and action has been positive, however. Soldiers returning from the war zones these days aren’t met by throngs of angry protestors shouting slurs and hurling insults at them. And while I do not believe in forced service for any unwilling participant, the draft did motivate an entire generation of Vietnam-era young people who may not otherwise have been so invested into taking part in a national discussion on war — one that is painfully and obviously absent today among young people who have grown to distrust their government so much they have checked out of the conversation all together.

Collectively, I believe we are improving in our approach to using military action and, even better, our treatment of those who answer the call of duty. But this change is too slow. I try to remain hopeful that our history lesson will stick this time, but fear what could be repeated if it doesn’t.

We remember Vietnam because we can’t go to the grocery store, the pharmacy or the local watering hole without bumping into one of the fine men who made it back from those jungles and fox holes. Every single one of our parents knew someone who was either drafted into service or enlisted during Vietnam. We grew up with first-hand accounts and hundreds of thousands of survivors. With so few of our generation personally affected by the Iraq war and an all-volunteer force of recently made veterans, I worry the lack of visibility and attention will lead us to forget that which needs remembering the most — the lifelong impact of war.

Our fathers and uncles, who still carry the burden of the war in Vietnam are now watching in horror as their sons and daughters shoulder their own heavy weight left by our generation’s unpopular war. Are we doomed to repeat that same heart-breaking cycle with our own nieces, nephews, sons and daughters? Not if we remain vigilant, share our stories and keep those conversations flowing.