To celebrate Veterans Day, the Los Angeles Times ran a two-part story on James Blake Miller, the battle-exhausted soldier in the iconic picture of the Battle of Falluja in November 2004. The photograph caught the 20-year-old Blake caked with blood and soot as a cigarette dangled from his mouth. He looked young, but also prematurely old. To many, the picture represents the modern American fighting man--resolute, determined, and much older than his years.
Today, Miller is home from Iraq and suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. His is a heartbreaking saga, and the Times's lengthy story detailed the efforts of Luis Sinco (the Times staff photographer who took the photo) to help him. Near the end of the story, Sinco quotes Miller's 21-year-old brother saying to him, "I'm glad I didn't join the Marines. I got a nice house, a wife and twin baby daughters, and I drive a Durango that's used but damn near new. You're divorced, drive a beat-up pickup and live in a trailer." His brother said that the returned soldier's "head is screwed up."
The Boston Globe celebrated Veterans Day with an editorial titled "When Johnny Comes Home Less." Citing a National Alliance to End Homelessness study, the Globe stated that over the course of a year, half-a-million veterans go homeless. (A subsequent correction dropped this number to 337,000.) The Globe proceeded to expose the grim facts that "Veterans are at risk. Many grapple with traumatic brain injuries, the loss of limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder, and mental illness. Some need to find jobs and housing."
These are important stories, and shouldn't be ignored, but it is also hard to ignore the political agenda at work here. Individual tales of heroism don't interest papers like the Times and the Globe; individual tragedies do. Portraying veterans as lost souls is a narrative that is politically convenient.
I recently exchanged emails with a colonel in the California National Guard--an attorney when not on active duty--about Bruce Spring-steen's new song "Gypsy Biker." The song portrays Iraq war veterans as gullible dupes who shed their blood while "the speculators made their money," and the colonel wrote:
It's this portrayal of vets as burnt-out losers with nowhere to go but out on the open road that gets me. I was in court today, a vet, arguing a million-dollar case, in front of a judge who was also a vet. Vets aren't burned out losers--we're leaders. For every vet with problems--and they certainly exist, though I would guess in percentages far below that of the comparable civilian population--there are dozens of vets out there building businesses, raising families, and leading communities. Many give up weekends and vacations to stay in the Guard and Reserve. But I guess those guys aren't cool enough or useful enough.
The stereotypical vet is the burned-out homeless guy with a torn old green field jacket. I say it should be the dad dropping his little girl off at preschool before he goes to the business he built from nothing while fielding phone calls from his Guard unit's full-time staff and driving a car with a trunk full of military gear so that, when the next earthquake or riot hits, he can go out and protect his community--again.
Although the colonel was speaking specifically of Springsteen, he might as well have been talking about the entire liberal establishment. CBS News ran a feature story last week that focused on a purported epidemic of suicides among Iraq war veterans. But CBS's report didn't take into account the age of the vets who had committed suicide (they're young) or their sex (they're predominantly male). By comparing them to the general population rather than their peer group, CBS was comparing apples to oranges; the suicide rate among vets in fact parallels that of their civilian peer groups. CBS jumped at a story that supported its agenda on the war.
Portraying veterans as victims dates back to the Vietnam era--like so many of the new left's philosophical guideposts. But the Vets-as-Victims theme has recently acquired political urgency. As the facts in Iraq have changed, it's gotten harder to plausibly maintain that the war is a nightmare without end. Iraqi civilian casualties, as documented by the liberal website Icasualties.org, dropped from a pre-surge high of 3,389 per month to 752 in September and 565 in October. November is on pace to have fewer than 500 Iraqi civilian casualties. American military casualties continue to decline. This progress hasn't come without sacrifice, achievement, and heroics. But journalists are mostly indifferent to these aspects of the veterans' experience because they don't square with the narrative of soldiers-as-victims.
It's all well and good for the left to stamp its collective foot and insist that success in Iraq doesn't matter, that nothing can wash away George W. Bush's original sin even though Bush won't be on the ballot in 2008. But progress in Iraq makes the issue recede in the public's mind. In January 2007, a Pew poll showed 55 percent of Americans viewed Iraq as "the first news story that comes to mind." In a Pew poll conducted last week that number had dropped to 16 percent.
Last week, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi launched their 41st attempt to constrain the war effort by limiting funds. They're no longer talking about Iraq as a disaster but focusing on how expensive the war effort is. The entire Democratic party power structure and its preferred intellectual construct profess a strange indifference to whether or not we succeed in Iraq. Back in 2005, the party wedded itself, for better or for worse, to the unyielding notion that the Iraq war is a failure. With the picture improving, and the election still a year away, they are running out of talking points.