A False Portrait

Chris Hedges' “War is Betrayal” wades into topics of considerable importance: our debate as a nation when deciding to pursue war, our conduct during times of war, and our response to its aftereffects. Unfortunately, his obvious biases and lack of analytic reasoning warp a potentially valuable message.

Hedges’s piece sets the clock back to late 1960s and early 1970s America, when writers addressed freely—and legitimately—the plight of many service members: an unfair and poorly executed draft, improper training, poor personnel policies, and an ill-defined conflict left many surviving combat veterans scarred. Even worse, some of them were stigmatized and even ostracized by the society they had served. This is undisputed history.

This set of problems, Hedges notes bluntly, is not confined to Vietnam. Combat veterans from earlier conflicts such as World War II and Korea suffered similar fates, as have those newly returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. To be sure, there is nothing as tragic as the failure of a society to offer support and love, without judgment, to those who have experienced the grim realities of war. We sent them, they fought for us and returned, and then we abandoned them. Nothing can ever be said to make up for these wrongs—past, present, and inevitably, future.

That being said, Hedges paints a false portrait of what it’s like to be a veteran that, to the uninitiated, seems compelling. He presents war as the natural state of affairs for the U.S. military. The “disillusionment” he mentions can only set in once “[k]illing becomes a job.” Attaining such a state undoubtedly requires sustained armed conflict. Yet how much time have we spent as a nation in war? Best guesses say between 40 and 50 years, depending on the criteria. So what does our military do the other 80 percent of the time, especially now with America as the sole global military power? Boring but necessary things that you rarely hear about: humanitarian assistance, partnered naval operations, and foreign internal-defense training. In short, doing the things that keep the world safe, however trite that may sound to some.

Despite Hedges groundless portrayal of America’s military as one big war-fighting unit, infantry (and combat specialities, more generally) actually comprise a small subset of the various positions for service members. In fact, only 14.1 percent of enlisted personnel and 13.5 percent of officers are assigned a “combat speciality,” let alone experience combat. It’s important to note that many other personnel are exposed to combat trauma, but they are far less likely to be in situations similar to the “checkpoint killing” and other incidents referenced by Hedges. No, “the weak, the gullible, the marginal, the poor” are generally more interested in technical or logistical training, which promises stable employment following their tour.

Hedges also doesn’t appear to think much of people who volunteer, despite his attempt to deploy them as objects of pity. He says that it doesn’t take much to get young men interested in the military. Shiny medals, promises of sex, big explosions, and combat—they all have an undeniable attraction for potential recruits. But the implication seems to be that either potential service members shouldn’t be interested in these things, or the military shouldn’t recruit based on such appeals. Obviously the former is a non-starter, so the latter must be his target.

Whatever is said by the jingoistic fringe, the reasonable majority understand that war should never be pursued lightly.

Here, Hedges strangely assumes that it’s better to stonewall people who are intrinsically attracted to military culture and values. Apparently, it’s preferable for them to retain their child-like understanding of the military from popular culture than to train in the effective and controlled application of violence. Reality, unfortunately, belies such claims. The military does an amazing job of training people to harness physical action to productive ends. Indeed, America has witnessed a decades-long decline in veteran incarceration—we are recruiting higher caliber people and training them better. If people are being targeted for their less enlightened characteristics, or if the training is ineffective, the incarceration rate would reflect that.

And what of those who are incapacitated by their combat experiences? Are they being swept under the rug to keep other veterans from having to “give up the fleeting moments of recognition, the only times in their lives they were told they were worth something”? Hardly. Former President Bush spoke frequently about the need to support our troops after their return home. President Obama has greatly expanded the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs, increasing it over 25 percent in less than three years. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden have promoted Joining Forces, a high-profile military support initiative, all across America. Veteran support groups have received overwhelming contributions; Wounded Warrior Project alone took in over $123 million in donations in 2011. This is not the story of a nation who forgot her defenders, wounded or otherwise.

Finally, Hedges’s odd presentation of public discourse and understanding of war deserves scrutiny. The “patriotic mantras,” “lies told to make [combat veterans] kill,” and the “myths of war” all hint at an incredibly naïve rationale for military action, something not backed by facts. Policy discussions and decisions about war still revolve—rightly—around concepts such as rule of law, sovereignty, state-sponsored aggression, and human rights. Whatever the jingoistic fringe says, the reasonable majority understand that war should never be pursued lightly, and that it will involve terrible situations for those on the ground.

As Americans, we must remember the terrible costs of war, and insist our elected officials do the same. We must look within ourselves when our nation calls for war to ensure it’s right to answer. We must take care of our veterans, especially those bearing the visible and invisible wounds of war. But what we must not do is stain the honor of our defenders by patronizing them, or by using their sacrifices as political fodder.

War is hell, not betrayal. Betrayal is seeing the worst in the best of us.