Sharing the Burden of War

by Greg Parker

In 1998, I drove by a billboard for the recently released movie “The Thin Red Line,” one of those rare films that are both intensely graphic and introspective. To convey the movie’s central theme, the billboard included the longer subtitle from the James Jones novel: “Every man fights his own war.” “Ah,” I said to myself, having only just seen the film. “Now I get it.”

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SPC Gary Cretors, photographed for the Soldier Portraits Project by Ellen Susan.

I thought of that moment recently as I was reading Nancy Sherman’s new book, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers. Sherman, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, provides a window into the complicated inner moral struggles of the individual soldier and sheds light on the tapestry of individual wartime experience. As she explains, every person’s experience is unique. Therefore philosophy, with its thousands of years of nuanced discussion, is better suited to address moral conflicts than psychology. Indeed, Sherman argues, it is philosophy’s very complexity that can be so healing.

This is an important distinction. For its part, the Department of Defense has made considerable progress acknowledging the psychological burden on its returning warriors. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its less severe manifestation, combat stress, have been discussed extensively in public forums, and service members are now encouraged to receive counseling without jeopardizing their own careers. This is an important and very positive step.

But the approach to wartime psychology is still a pathological one: “You are mentally broken, and we care about you, so we want to fix you.” It has a one-size-fits-all feel. The problem is more complicated than that. From my own observations of combat, the individual soldier often feels not that he or she is broken, but that the world itself is broken, and there is no easy fix for a broken world. Philosophy, at the least, offers a framework in which to understand it.

I have experienced this disorientation myself. Not long after returning from my second deployment to Afghanistan in as many years, I found myself in the checkout aisle of a Home Depot. The cashier noticed my military ID when I opened my wallet to pay, and he awkwardly informed me that I warranted a 10 percent discount. After ringing up the sale and handing me my receipt he added, “And, um, thank you for your service.”

I was confused by that exchange. It’s not that I don’t like the 10 percent discount (because I do), nor that I didn’t appreciate his intentions. It’s just that after enduring significant time apart from my family and fighting in a messy war with no clear protagonists, I expect a little more civic burden-sharing. While my squadron and I had been busy battling the Taliban and Al Qaeda, after all, Wall Street apparently had been on a drunken bender of sub-prime loans and mortgage derivatives that nearly catapulted the nation into a second Great Depression. Meanwhile, the bills for the war—not insignificant by any measure—were simply being charged to our children. Where was the shared sacrifice? Was the nation’s role in the war only to give me a 10 percent discount at Home Depot—and an obligatory pat on the head?

This relationship between the military and the nation, and especially the confusion and misunderstanding on both sides, is an important issue that Sherman discusses extensively. For my part, I have long felt that the inflated words used to describe servicemembers—from “hero” to “great American”—almost always miss their target. Hyperbole sacrifices credibility. But there is still ample common ground on which to begin a more productive conversation. For instance, I always understood my role fighting the nation’s enemies, but it was very difficult for me to reconcile that with the role of being a father to my two sons, if only because the former meant I was always gone. To whom was my true loyalty? I remember in particular a long-distance conversation from Afghanistan with my then three-year-old who had been lured reluctantly to the phone. I tried to draw him out of his shell with light-hearted banter, but he cut me short with the only words he knew to express his longing for an absent father. “You’re taking too long, Daddy,” he whispered. “I know, buddy,” I whispered back, my voice unsteady now. “I know.”

Perhaps here lies the kernel of mutual understanding. A father’s absence from his children is just one example of a deeper, sometimes all-pervasive sense of guilt about the inability to live up to competing standards. The military, of course, is all about standards, and sometimes they are irreconcilable. This guilt—and its mirror image, resentment—are common themes in Sherman’s book, but they are also emotions that are familiar to virtually all working parents who find themselves falling short in some capacity. It is part of the shared humanity of adulthood. In combat, I was surprised to learn from trained psychologists that the psychological effects of frequent long deployments are similar to those of a single traumatic incident, and I have often looked at exhausted civilian counterparts, trying unsuccessfully to adequately balance work, children, and relationships, through the same lens that I viewed my own sailors. We are all, it would seem, fighting our own internal wars.

This is not to say that going to war is just like having a bad hair day. But the core moral struggles on both sides are still recognizable. We service members and civilians are more alike than we may seem. The mismatch between ideals and reality, whether as a result of our inability to live up to expectations or the world’s inability to live up to our own, is devastating stuff. By shining the light of philosophy on a generation of soldiers, Sherman has initiated a dialogue that will help the military—and the nation—better understand their common struggle and, hopefully, better share the burden. It is a dialogue that is long overdue.

US Navy Commander Greg Parker completed multiple tours on four different aircraft carriers and commanded a squadron deployed to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. In 2010, he was a Federal Executive Fellow with the 21st Century Defense Initiative, a research project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.