Approximately two and a half million men and women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the service of the United States’ war on terror. Yet, because this military is all-volunteer, it is also a relatively isolated sector of the United States’ population. As a result comparatively few Americans have direct connections to military veterans or to the daily conduct of these recent, seemingly endless wars. Veterans may decline to discuss their experiences of deployment for years following the events. Others wish only to talk amongst themselves, suspicious of civilian agendas or ignorance. A few will never talk about deployment, though they might think of it often.
The access most Americans have to combat experience in this new millennium is through the news. However, it isn’t news if it isn’t unprecedented, extreme, unusual, or pivotal, so even responsible journalism can be or seem sensational. For veterans returning from eight months of ordinary days in Fallujah or Kandahar, these media representations can be alienating or dispiriting. For civilians, they do much to keep us aware of history as it is being made, but little to introduce us to an important, though minority, sector of the American experience in the present—to the veterans themselves.
The purpose of this project, “After Combat,” is to introduce readers to these wars from the perspective of their combatants. The volume compiles stories of deployment as told by veterans. For three years we have interviewed men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from the first invasions to the most recent collaborations with local armies. The interview questions and consent forms were first submitted for Texas A&M Institutional Review Board (TAMU IRB) approval. Each participant has signed written consent for publication. Their stories are compiled here in their own words and with minimal intervention or framing by the authors. Our aim is to narrate what Vietnam veteran and writer Tim O’Brien calls a “true war story:” one without obvious purpose or moral imputation, independent of civilian logic, propaganda goals, and even peacetime convention.
Over the last three years, we have also been presenting this material to a wide variety of audiences in lectures illustrated with audio clips from the interviews. We are struck by the hunger civilians indicate, their absorption by military voices, and the questions that spool out until the allotted time ends.
We are also struck by the feelings of “failure and shame”—to quote a military chaplain who participated in the project—that haunt veterans on their return home. No deployment meets the expectation of war experience laid down by stories of Appomattox, Ypres, Iwo Jima, or even Tet. Stuck behind a desk or the wheel of a truck, veterans feel they haven’t been to war though they listened to mortars in the night or drove around improvised explosive devices in the day. When a drone is needed to verify a target’s death, when bullets are sprayed like grass seed, even war offensives lack immediate combat authenticity. Every day in the suck of deployment is lived in the hope of that “golden moment”—to quote another participant—of the return home.
As good as home is, it’s not exactly the same as the place the veteran departed from; you do not step into the same river twice. Children have grown, spouses changed jobs, lovers been unfaithful, parents aged. The sense of purpose and urgency that deployment impressed can be lost to the muddle of civilian life, amorphous new projects, or the return to ordinary jobs and careers.
As much as veterans are changed by war, it is not always in the ways civilians may expect. Post-combat stress may inspire nightmares or anxious crowd navigation, but no veteran wants to be treated like a “ticking time bomb,” as one former airman was described. An amputation might seem tragic to the witness, but a “blessing” to the amputee, as a returning soldier testified.
Veterans can join together in the comfort of familiarity to swap stories and reminisce. But even in those closed circles there is some suspicion; even then the “decoy story”—to borrow veteran-writer Phil Klay’s term—can be replayed to distract attention from more pointed attempts to glean information or elicit profound emotions. How are veterans themselves to know what their comrades experienced or how they privately remember a deployment?
This project bridges those gaps by telling war’s unvarnished stories. Participating soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen (retired, on leave, or at the beginning of military careers) here describe combat in the way they believe it should be understood. They also recount memories, experiences, and views they attest that they do not otherwise voice. In their interviews, which lasted from forty-five minutes to two hours, they spoke honestly with pride in their own strengths and accomplishments, with gratitude for friendships and adventures, but also in the face of shame, regret, and grief, braving controversy, misunderstanding, and sanction. In these open conversations, they describe thoughts they didn’t realize they were harboring, remember comrades faded from recollection, and recall arduous routines since forgotten.