ROBERT J. LIFTON
Made in Iraq: the new antiwar veteran
ON THE FRINGE of the recent Democratic National Convention in Boston, there was a miniconvention of a group called Veterans for Peace. Most of the 400-plus participants were Vietnam veterans, though there were smaller contingents of veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the first Gulf War. But the most dramatic presence was that of a group of new kids on the block, veterans of the war in Iraq. These new veterans could come to have a powerful influence on our country. Iraq veterans undergo the same psychological struggles of all survivors over images of deaths , how much to feel and not to feel, pain and guilt from the deaths of buddies and their own behavior. Above all, war survivors hunger for meaning -- for some kind of moral judgment about their encounters with death.
In this quest for understanding, it turns out that Iraq veterans have much in common with their older compatriots who fought in Vietnam. Both groups were involved in a confusing counterinsurgency war conducted in an alien, hostile environment against a nonwhite enemy as elusive as he was dangerous. The result in both cases was an atrocity-producing situation -- one structured militarily and psychologically so that ordinary soldiers with no special history of violence or antisocial behavior were suddenly capable of killing or torturing civilians who were loosely designated as "the enemy."
A significant number of Vietnam veterans found meaning in opposing their war while it was in progress. The hearings on American war crimes and the throwing away of medals were their way of rejecting the war and holding not just themselves but their country accountable.
Their impact on the nation was different from that of other antiwar protesters because they were able to bring the Vietnam death scene directly to the American public, as John Kerry did in his 1971 testimony before a US Senate subcommittee, when he asked, "How we can ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
What Kerry and other antiwar veterans were contesting was the wartime tradition that in order to make sure the fallen did not "die in vain," one must rally round the flag, assert the nobility of the cause, and prosecute the war ever more vigorously.Instead, they invoked the authority of the dead to oppose rather than perpetuate the war.
This kind of alternative is by no means new -- it was powerfully expressed by writers surviving World War I and goes back as far as Homer.
Iraq veterans are beginning to express similar sentiments. In Boston they sounded not unlike their Vietnam predecessors. They emphasized the large-scale killing of Iraqi civilians by American firepower, along with their own widespread confusion. "We were lost. We had no idea what we were doing," was the way one put it. Continued...