My first few days in South Viet Nam were spent warehoused in the huge Long Binh military base north of Saigon. In the bunk across from mine was a combat infantryman who had been wounded several times. Each time he had been sent back to recuperate and then returned to the field. A handsome young farm boy from upstate New York, this soldier now had deadened eyes that looked right through you as if he were seeing something he could never describe. All through the night, he would scream out or sit picking at the scabs on his arms caused by a tenacious skin fungus.
I do not know what ever became of that young man. He and I went our separate ways and into our own private wars. Perhaps he is back in New York now with family and friends. Is he still haunted by the things he saw over thirty years ago? Or perhaps he is one of the almost one million Viet Nam veterans who have died since the end of the war with between 50,000 and 100,000 -- according to estimates -- dying by their own hand or in suspicious circumstances.
Before the start of the American war in Iraq there was much talk about ?unintended consequences.? One of the unintended consequences created by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Perle, and Wolfiwitz will be another cohort of military veterans who will not be able to stop thinking about what they did and what they saw. From the comfort of our living rooms, we are watching the fiery initiation of the newest members of that cohort. For the next half-century, the veterans of this conflict will struggle to adapt. Some will find refuge in their patriotism. They fought for ?our freedom? or for ?the freedom of the Iraqi people,? they will say. They fought ?to make the world a safer place.?
But other veterans of the American war in Iraq will question why innocent civilians and their fellow soldiers had to die, why their flashbacks will not go away, why they jump at loud noises, why they feel anger deep in their soul. They will demand to know what really motivated the Bush administration to initiate a war that was opposed by millions of people around the world and at home. They will want to know why they are afflicted with physical maladies caused by depleted uranium, clouds of burning oil, experimental vaccinations or even biological weapons. They and their families will live with the consequences of the Bush administration?s stripped down veterans? medical care budget that is nearly $2 billion less than the one recommended by major veterans? organizations.
They will ask why they had to endure decades of recurring nightmares while Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Perle, and Wolfiwitz did not. And when another war-mongering administration attempts to send young men and women to die in foreign lands, these veterans of America?s war in Iraq will speak out against it.
The other day I heard the story of a Gulf War veteran who upon his return to the States became obsessed with the Carlyle Group. His apartment became cluttered with documents about the global investment firm with close ties to the Republican Party on whose board sat George Bush, Sr., as well as members of the Saudi royal family and the bin Laden clan.
Like Viet Nam veterans before him, this young man was possessed with discovering what his war was really about and how he and his fellow soldiers had been used as disposable cogs in its deadly machinery. He wanted to know why some corporate investors and defense contractors had profited from his war and why since 1991 more than 11,000 Gulf War veterans have died and over 160,000 are afflicted with mysterious illnesses. After reaching a satisfactory understanding, the young man proceeded to take his own life.
We do not know how history will view the events now unfolding on our television screens. Will ?democracy? come to Iraq after the U.S. victory? Not likely given the track record of previous U.S. interventions around the world. Will we be more secure from the threat of terrorist attacks? Not likely given that according to a recent Zogby poll conducted in the Middle East, 83% of those asked said the U.S. assault on Iraq would increase the likelihood of terrorism (97% in Saudi Arabia, home to the 9/11 hijackers). Will Mr. Bush be considered one of our more successful presidents? Not likely given his administration?s attacks on the Constitution and its economic irresponsibility both of which will have long-term negative effects.
History is always unpredictable though and so, in these early stages of what is nothing less than a radical transformation of our national character and values, we cannot be sure of anything.
But there is one thing we can be sure of -- in the year 2053, gray-haired veterans of this unnecessary war will gather at a memorial inscribed with the names of their fallen comrades and weep.
Jorge Mariscal teaches at the University of California, San Diego.