11 November 2007

Veterans Day

Since most of you know me in real life, you probably already know that I have a brother who is serving in Iraq. I'd like to share something he wrote in his latest email update:

Before I tuck myself under my cadet green blanket for the night, I would like to ask a favor of you all. As Veteran's Day approaches, most of America will celebrate with a day off or perhaps the purchase of a new car. As Americans, we enjoy the truly rare luxury of an all-volunteer military force. While it means that those who wish to do other things with their lives are free to do so, it also means that much of America is totally disconnected from her own military. There was a time when everyone knew a veteran. Now, the veterans are harder to find. Without putting too fine a point on it, for all the sturm and drang over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, most Americans are untouched by the harshest realities of the conflict. While it's comforting to know that our country is not embroiled in daily misery over the war, it does highlight the disconnect between the country and the military.

Most people would be surprised to learn (as I was) that the number of veterans of both conflicts numbers over 1.5 million. It's well known that almost 4,000 servicemembers have been killed in Iraq. However, the advances in medical care on the battlefield have meant that those who would have died of wounds even ten years ago now survive. But they survive to face the loss of limbs, eyesight, and even cognitive function. In the past four years over 9,000 servicemembers have been evacuated from Iraq with traumatic injuries. Many of you often ask what to send us to support the troops, which is always appreciated. But my request of you this Veteran's Day is to take the time and money you would spend to send a care package and use it to support those warriors who are back on American shores. The Wounded Warriors Project is a group which provides support, care, and comfort to wounded veterans and their families. They assist family members in the months following a traumatic injury, allowing them the financial wherewithal to travel across the country to their loved one and stay by his/her side at Walter Reed or Brooke Army Medical Center, not to mention the support and comfort they give to the wounded. Please consider making a small donation to their efforts. There are many, many families of soldiers who have been through terrible pain as a result of their loved one's service. So in lieu of a care package, please take some time this Veteran's Day to support our recovering veterans.

I felt a little hesitant about posting this; having family in the military and having gone to a pretty liberal university, I've felt the heat of the dialectic of this war more than many civilians, and it's not something I enjoy or seek out. Is supporting veterans a political act? I can't answer that question for anyone else, but from my point of view, it's first and foremost an act of kindness.


"You think you have it bad? You should see how bad things are for X!" During my time in Russia, I've been tempted to say this over and over again (about pollution, race relations, women's rights, and a slew of other problems that Russia faces at ten times the scale of America), but by now I've realized that if it's ever a healthy attitude, it's only healthy in very small doses. Nonetheless, I'd still like to share a little bit of what I know of the Russian army. As my brother mentions, we do live with the luxury of an all-volunteer military force. Luxury or basic human right; no matter what it ought to be in an ideal world, I never had much perspective on what a luxury it really is in our world until I came to Russia, where people often react with shock and disbelief when I tell them that no one in America is forced to serve.

The Russian military still works by conscription, and many young men do whatever they can to get out of service. That may sound cowardly, but after all the horror stories I've heard about the army here, I can't judge them. Hazing of new conscripts is rampant in the army, and it sometimes results in death. Anna Politkovskaya collected plenty of accounts, but I can provide examples even without resorting to the writings of a journalist many in Russia are ready to automatically discredit as blinded by bias. (If you're interested in her accounts, you can find them in A Russian Diary.) My friend Sasha, who grew up in a village not far from here, had a schoolmate who voluntarily enlisted after graduating. Sasha says he talked enthusiastically about serving in the army, but after only a few months, "he returned in a coffin." According to Sasha, it was a case of suicide after excessive hazing; Politkovskaya maintained that many such "suicides" are cover-ups of cases of accidental death during hazing. Either way, it's horrific.

Furthermore, Russia's messy, drawn-out wars in Chechnya have been the stage for unspeakable atrocities (on both sides, as the Russians I meet who are even willing to speak about Chechnya are quick to point out). Again, Politkovskaya devoted a lot of ink to this topic, especially to the fates of those who return from service in Chechnya, and again, her version matches what ordinary Russians I know have to say. In short, those who return from Chechnya return psychologically broken – stereotypically, they become alcoholics, drug abusers and criminals, and it's not long before many of them end up in prison. They receive a little help from the government – about 40 bucks a month and special privileges like free bus passes and stamps – but that's all. No one wants to associate with a veteran, much less hire one, since it's considered likely that he's unbalanced. Armless or legless veterans slumped on the street or wheeling themselves onto metro cars to beg for change are a common sight. Russia still lacks a tradition of large-scale social movements, and those who want to help these young men (and women, but mostly men) really struggle to do so.

So on this Veterans Day, I'm feeling especially thankful that I come from a country where the military is professional and accountable, and a society that values social awareness, activism, and a free press. In my country, people don’t ignore wars they find unjust – they shout at each other about them. Any whiff of corruption or scandal is splashed across the front pages of the newspapers; and as my brother mentions, almost everyone knows how many Americans have died in Iraq. It can get overwhelming, and there are certainly those who long for those good old days when the world was black and white and wars were causes that uniformly united the nation. (Was that ever really the case?) And plenty of us wish we didn't have quite so much corruption splashing across those newspaper pages. But it's a lot better than silence, and my time in Russia has taught me that sadly, that's still an alternative in the world today.


Дж. Хьюз said...

Thanks for the interesting and poignant perspective. It is a shame how America treats the men and women who have chosen to serve in the military. The way Russia treats its soldiers, present and past, is an abomination.

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful and well-written analysis. Thanks for posting it. No matter what anyone thinks of this war -- or Korea, or Viet Nam -- an honorable and accountable military is necessary for survival. The Russians know it, and the Chinese know it, too.

"We live in the land of the free because of the brave."