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.”

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.

  • DJSeifert

    As a mental health professional, it is strange to me that we celebrate something–the military sacrifice–that has a resulting potential of creating symptoms that fall under the diagnostic banner of PTSD. Everything I know that creates similar or such symptoms is either inappropriate in our society or an outright abuse of some kind.

  • Bill Burns

    When CDR Parker speaks of military members’ guilt about inabilty to live up to competing standards and the mismatch between ideals and reality, I think he is simply reflecting the larger problem he addresses earlier. With the all volunteer army came a complete disconnect between the military and the society it is supposed to serve. Dedicated military members are trying to shoulder a larger share of civic responsibility than they should have to in a democracy. As he points out, the rest of society is not participating in the war, is not paying for the war, and go about their daily lives focused on their personal concerns. Military service should be just that–service. We have turned it into a well-paid job. I don’t think you can put a price tag on what we ask of men and women sent into combat. At the same time, I don’t think it is right to keep sending the same men and women time and again while the rest of society is given a free pass. If these men and women are truly fighting for something worthwhile, then all of us should be engaged. On Memorial Day, another sign of the huge disconnect in our society occurred to me. On that day, Americans in large number paid tribute to those who have died in service to their country. Those same Americans will go to the polls in November, and millions will vote for a senate candidate in Connecticut (Democrat) and a senate candidate in Illinois (Rebublican) who lied repeatedly about their military service in order to advance their political careers. What will that say about the voters’ respect for and concern for all those who will be fighting in Afghanistan on election day–some of whom may be injured or killed? What will that say about the place of the military in our democracy? Where is the civic burden-sharing?

  • Thomas Selinsky


    “War is a Racket… To Hell With War!” – Smedley Butler

  • Kyle

    People cannot do terrible things, have terrible things done to them, and generally be exposed to terrible things without being adversely affected. The general public needs more exposure to the horrors of war (including the long-term aftermath and including the horrors inflicted on the “enemy”) so that we can more fully realize just how bad it is and therefore make it a more rare occurrence… a last resort… or ideally extinct. The current way that the media covers war… a glamorization of its “high-tech” aspects, a lack of blood and gore, and omission of harm done to “the other side” including civilians, combined with our “all-volunteer” military shields the populace from the realities of war. Please refer to Bob Dylan’s 1963 song “Masters of War” and the 1964 song “Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie regarding the nature of warfare and its purveyors.