May 29, 2006 The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a front-page story this week about the difficulties faced by American soldiers returning home from active duty. Their emotions are complicated, ranging from the now-familiar post-traumatic stress disorders, to the reality of horrible physical injury, to a strange letdown from the loss of personal power they enjoyed as armed warriors in a scruffy land with life-or-death policing authority.
A few things struck me about this excellent story, by Scott Anderson. One was the fact that our method for prosecuting this war is almost entirely based on driving around in cars, and that consequently most of the deaths and injuries have occurred in connection with roadside bombs or attacks on vehicles.
The source of Radaker's problems behind the wheel seemed easy enough to trace and underscored Martin Sweeny's comments about the extended state of extreme vigilance the soldiers in Iraq had endured. Radaker had been a Humvee driver in Alpha Company and had taken the demands of that task very much to heart.
"I was the most experienced driver in our platoon," he explained to me, "and I just thought it was my job to keep everybody in my platoon safe, to always be looking. They taught us, 'Watch the road, watch the road,' so when I was driving, I was always watching, not just the road, but what's on the left, what's on the right, watching up, watching down."
The incessant patrols down Iraqi highways in the Sunni Triangle described here, and the "recovery missions" to aid other Humvee crews who had run into trouble was a disturbing analog to those familiar incessant trips of civilian life down the highway strip to the WalMart. To some extent, the essence of our mission over there has been to ensure that those trips to the WalMart will continue.
The soldiers interviewed in Anderson's story (nor Anderson himself) had no apprehension that this was itself perhaps an act of futility -- that the easy motoring existence back home was remorselessly entering its terminal phase, due to the global oil situation, and that all the Humvees on God's green earth would not avail to preserve it. Another element of the story that stood out was the way these returned soldiers missed the exhilaration and camaraderie of the war zone, and what a contrast it had been to the banalities of civilian life they returned to in small town Pennsylvania. Some were eager to go back over. Others, while not exactly eager, were willing to go back if their national guard unit was called back into rotation. Though this was not spelled out in the story, you sensed the utter vacuum of masculine roles in American civilian life these days.
Everybody, more or less, male or female, has been reduced to the status of a soccer mom, condemned in one way or another, to endless duty driving the family cars here and there and everywhere, assigned the demeaning label of "consumers," with no duties, obligations, or responsibilities to anything greater than fetching Cheez Doodles and Pepsi for the larder back home in the double-wide. In all the blather about the sufferings of women the past quarter-century, not a whole lot of attention has been paid to the dearth of meaningful roles for men, both socially and in work, and the drawn-out adventure in Iraq has stimulated a recognition that the passivity of "consumerdom" is not enough to keep society sane.
In my opinion, this must even redound into our politics, especially the politics of the Democratic party, if it is going to survive. It has to be re-masculinized. It has to allow men to come back into the centers of power, including the power to speak the truth -- even if the truth hurts somebody's feelings.