The war in Iraq turns three today. Just three. It’s a little number, easy to swallow—but surprisingly hard to grasp. Three years is 36 months, or 156 weeks; it’s 20,000 wounded soldiers, or some 200,000 survivors now safe again at home. War is full of such slippery figures. KIA, MIA, bomb tonnage, rates of fire: These function as stand-ins for the reality of the war; in many cases, quite literally as body doubles. Numbers don’t lie, but they do obscure.
Recently I had the opportunity to look behind some numbers related to Operation Iraqi Freedom for an article in the March issue of Esquire. My concern was with the effect of the war on the institutions and individuals charged with fighting it: the U.S. military and its partners at home, the soldiers and the veterans they become. Some of what I found was ugly. Our forces are stretched as they never have been stretched before—nearly to the breaking point, some experts say. The Department of Veterans Affairs is underfunded by billions of dollars, its ability to treat the nation’s war survivors severely reduced. The individuals who survived Iraq are in peril, too: Twenty percent of them suffer from psychological disorders related to the stress and horror of their experience; more than 500 are confirmed to be homeless; Six percent of those who were injured have undergone at least one amputation.
There are spots of brightness, as well. Fully 90 percent of the U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq survive, compared to 75 percent in the Gulf War and Vietnam, and today a gravely hurt soldier will be airlifted to a U.S. military hospital within four days, a trip that averaged six weeks in the Vietnam era. A number that didn’t make it into the Esquire article is also encouraging: Both the Army and the Marine Corps are exceeding their goals for reenlistment, a sign of high troop morale and our soldiers’ belief in the justice of their mission.
But my concern here is not with the military or the American soldier. It is with us, the civilians, and how we understand—or fail to understand—the significance of a fight we are, whether we support it or not, a part of. Iraq is a big war, perhaps even a Great War; the nation has seen nothing like it in a generation. But it does not feel that way.
Sixteen million Americans served in the Armed Forces during World War II. That represented 13 percent of the entire population, or roughly one in four American men. Of the 16 million who served, 13.1 million were sent to what were at least nominally combat zones. Nearly 300,000 of them were killed in battle, and another half million were injured. If you were alive in the United States at that time, you knew someone who was fighting, and you quite likely knew someone who didn’t come home, or came home broken. That war was a universal reality. That war sat in the living room.
Nine million Americans, or roughly 4.5 percent of the population, went to Vietnam. One in 10 American men shipped out. Of the 2.25 million who were stationed in combat zones, “just”—to use an awful term—43,000 were killed in battle. Given the domestic upheaval of the time, Vietnam was, like World War II, also a universal reality, but it, and its victims, sat quietly in the classroom. You knew their faces, but you might well not have known their names.
Where does Operation Iraqi Freedom sit? Just over a million Americans have served in Iraq—roughly 0.4 percent of the U.S. population, or fewer than one man in a hundred. The number of soldiers killed, both in absolute measure and as a percentage of the number of front-line combatants, is, in historic terms, small: 2,322 as of last week. One in 50 U.S. active-duty soldiers in World War II and Vietnam were killed; in Iraq, the figure is more like one in 200.
We are all more or less aware, of course, of the literal cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom (248 billion dollars and change, if you can stomach yet another figure). This makes many of us angry, but the anger is not visceral. Iraq, despite the money being spent, does not really hit our own wallets; Iraq does not hit home. Women of my grandmother’s generation grew their own vegetables so that America’s farms could feed their husbands stationed overseas. I roast free-range chickens while men like me pick grit out of their MREs in downtown Baghdad. That is one way I mark the difference between this war and those that came before. Another is this: I don’t know a single person who has served in Iraq. I suspect that many who are reading this can say the same thing.
So again, where does Operation Iraqi Freedom sit? It sits on the bus to the outer boroughs—the bus you never have and never will take. It sits in the trim house near the Army base in Georgia, or Massachusetts, or Oregon—not one of the soldiers in Iraq was drafted, after all. It also likely sits next to you, on the subway or in the traffic jam, en route to the shiny glass tower where you both work. But unless you and I make a conscious effort to recognize both the historic significance and the human reality of what is happening in Iraq, it will remain anonymous. This war sits at the edge of the room, a stranger we have no reason, except that it is our duty as its hosts, to approach.
One thousand and ninety-six days ago, I was in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, as far from America as I then felt like being. When news of the war’s beginning hit (almost in real time, thanks to the Internet cafés that ring the town square), the voices of the passersby rose, changed pitch, became angry. Then they settled. I came home three months later, spent the summer on a lake in California, slept through the fall on a couch in Boston, moved to New York, got jobs, got an apartment, wrote. More seasons passed. Seven of my friends got married. Two of my friends broke bones. One of my friends died. The clock ticks and life goes on, but today it needs to be said: Three years is a very long time.