by Travis Switalski, Sr.
Vietnam had O’Brien, Caputo, and about ten dozen others. World War Two had James Jones and Korea had Hornberger, to name two of a hundred with ties to those wars. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have no unified, enduring voice outside war porn authors or the newest Medal of Honor recipient’s ghost written book. So far our voice consists of social media posts and rantings related to political candidates using us as bait and pawns to meet an agenda. We need our own voice, and we can develop it into something lasting.
It would be unfair to say that there aren’t any voices for us out there. Plenty of outstanding writing has been done by OIF and OEF Veterans. David Ervin’s non-fiction, Leaving The Wire: An Infantryman’s Iraq, and Jerad Alexander’s novella, The Life of Ling Ling are two fine books born from the true voice of experience. Short stories like Kyle Larkin’s “Minarets” and Christopher Lyke’s “These Are Just the Normal Noises,” or articles like Sean Tyler’s “The Other Side of the Gunfire: Life in a Battalion Aid Station,” or Brian Mockenhaupt’s “I Miss Iraq. I Miss My Gun. I Miss My War” do render the voice of our war. Organizations like Veteran’s Writing Project and Military Experience & the Arts don’t use “war porn” or publish Special Operations’ narratives, but instead showcase art, poetry, non-fiction and fiction works by ordinary people who lived through extraordinary circumstances. There are literally thousands of works by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – art, poetry, fiction, non-fiction all done by those who fought in America’s longest military campaign. Why are good works being drowned by rantings on Facebook?
Social media has been detrimental to the veteran experience. We are so flooded with articles, posts, memes, rants and groups that there is little time to actually read what is presented. We’re inundated with war porn and hero worship to the point that we have grown numb to our own experiences and the experiences of our fellow veterans. We live in little, fragmented, online groups that separate us from each other and from the rest of the American population. We label ourselves as disgruntled or dysfunctional and participate in causes that amount to little more than online “slack-tivism.” We “like” or “share” pages and articles without reading them, and we have little interest in actually educating others about our time in the service. The shame is that no one is going to scroll back through years of memes and online articles to try and understand what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. If they did, the information they would find wouldn’t be representative, rather it would be based on the bravado of a select few whose experiences are not in line with the majority of American veterans.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was published in 1990, a full 25 years after the Vietnam War ended. Today, high schools teach the novel for its historical and literary value. O’Brien has (probably unwittingly) become the voice for his generation of veterans. O’Brien’s generation had two sects of veterans, the “Lifers” those who joined the military of their own accord and planned on making service a career and the “draftees” those unfortunate souls who were forced to partake in combat as a result of conscription. The Things They Carried was written by a draftee infantryman and transcends the “Lifer” and “draftee” mistrust by the illustrating how both groups bore the moral weight of sustained missions of attrition in Vietnam. Today’s high schoolers pick up an actual book, bound with paper pages, and read about the experiences of those who fought in Southeast Asia fifty years ago. Perhaps twenty-five years from now works by Ervin, Mockenhaupt, Alexander, or Larkin or a host of others will be the voices of our contemporaries speaking to future generations of American veterans. However, the formation of that type of bond will face significant hurtles given the desensitization brought on by social media. Social media has given us a technologically induced lobotomy. The “vet voice” on social media doesn’t talk about having beers with Vietnam veteran uncles or grandfathers and laughing as veterans always do together.
Social media is not leaving American culture. It will only evolve further and continue to dilute our experiences. It seeks to categorize us all as PTSD riddled psychopaths. It doesn’t have to be this way. If we as a community begin promoting our veteran artists, poets and authors, if we focus on our actual experiences as opposed to caricatures of them, if we foster the idea that social media is a forum to promote our true experiences as opposed to a medium to further alienate us from the rest of the world, we may emerge with a voice that speaks to who we are as a generation of combat veterans and humans.
(Feature image: “War” by Tif Holmes, originally appearing in the Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2)