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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

On War

And How It Is Changing

Today is Memorial Day and there will be a small local parade here, but surely every form of communication will be buzzing with words and images from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan being beamed back and forth to the US. Today that is all postcards and sweetness and eulogy. But as I recently learned, neither we civilians nor the military have really faced what it means to have the font lines so closely in touch with the home front.

I spent a good part of last year looking for accounts of war by people who had served in battle. Patty Campbell and I were editing a book about war for teenagers, and my focus was on finding a way to allow soldiers to speak. I interviewed some Vietnam Vets, I read miliblogs from Iraq, I found accounts written by men who had served in the Gulf War, I found an author who was interviewing female soldiers in Iraq. Some of these accounts were by people strongly in favor of the war where they had seen (or were seeing) combat. Some were strongly against those wars. Some had a nuanced middle ground — supporting their buddies, their experience, questioning their mission. But one of the biggest changes I saw had to do with the sense of here and there, the war zone and the home front.

For the Vietnam Vets, Nam and Home could not have been more different. In combat they were in danger, foolish, cruel, heroic — alive. At home they were hated, condemned, feared. Some preferred to be in extreme danger in Vietnam than to be home at all — or, on return, stayed drunk until they could re-up. By contrast, today soldiers blog and email directly from wherever they are in the world. Instead of holding a letter and a photo from home in a locker, the soldier can be constantly in touch with home. Yet, some of the Iraq vets tell me, that is not entirely good. War is hell, they say. It is different. It is "over there." Being softened and humanized one minute and in harm’s way the next is, for some, harder than being gone, and then back.

One Iraq vet explained to me that, so long as he was in the field, he had to believe in the mission. If he did not, he would go crazy. He could only afford to recognize his own doubts and conflicts years later, in the safety of the US. 

So we are in this weird mid-place where soldiers need to shut out home, shut out questions, to be soldiers — to face death, and to be ready, willing, and able, to defeat, or kill, other soldiers. And yet both we and they keep finding more and more ways to be in touch. They are there, but a bit here. Perhaps the problem is that we, at home, need to be a bit there: not just in the political sense of being for or against this war or that war. But, rather, in saying that if we send soldiers into combat, and now can stay in touch with them, we ourselves need to begin to understand what combat is. In a connected global world we are not just their refuge, they are our experience of risk.