Over the last 25 years or so, starting with Desert Storm, there has been a concerted effort to avoid the kind of hatred and abuse that was heaped upon returning Vietnam veterans. This is commendable. Men should not be spat upon and vilified simply because they did their duty and went to war. Most of the hatred of the Vietnam generation (and some of the attempted gin-up of such hatred against the Afghan-Iraq veterans by such groups as IVAW) was based purely on North Vietnamese and Soviet propaganda.
But there is a dark side, a real danger, to taking this too far, and many people have done so. “Listen to the man on the ground” as an operational axiom has been extended to “The man on the ground can do no wrong.” “Support the troops!” has become an ideological bludgeon. Worst case, it has turned into a growing perception that soldiers, especially special operations troops, are infallible, morally superior angels.
No man is an angel. SOF troops, while trained and disciplined to a higher standard than many, are still men. They are still subject to the same fallibilities, frailties, and temptations as any other man. And they are facing them in a much uglier environment than the ideological cheerleaders have or ever will experience. Many manage to rise above the violence and the horror, upheld by their code. Some fall to temptation, if they ever even really cared about the moral side of it at all. Some do what they see they have to at the time, and eventually leave to try to put the ugliness behind them.
Romanticizing warriors is nothing new. In pre-Christian times, it was easier, because killing and reaving didn’t have the moral shade that it does under the Christian worldview. As war continued in Judeo-Christian, post-pagan societies, rules were enforced to attempt to mitigate some of the horror. But even then, it was generally understood that war is a necessary evil—a dirty, nasty business that must sometimes be engaged in for the good of the country.
There is virtue in duty and bravery. This should always be recognized. But the day we forget that war is an ugly business, the business of killing people and breaking things, and that it takes its toll on even the strongest man (and I’m not talking about PTS, here, either), is the day we are in deep trouble as a society.
Robert E. Lee is purported to have said, “It is well that war is so horrible, else we should become too fond of it.” Whether or not he actually said it has been questioned by historians, but the truth behind the words is there, nevertheless. War is an oft-necessary evil. The men who engage in it are neither angels nor saints. Nor are they devils. They are men, put in horrific circumstances, and often required to do horrific things to get through them.
War is not a video game or a movie. Soldiers are not archetypes. One is not necessarily a “good guy” just because of the color uniform he wears; that is determined by his own actions. Too many people have begun to see a profession as the determination of character. It isn’t. Character is intrinsic to the man.
We need to stop seeing war as so much a righteous endeavor, pursued by infallible gods-among-men, and start seeing it for what it really is: a regrettable, necessary evil. The men who fought Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan (for the most part—there are always those who go overboard) saw it as a job that had to be done, then went home and tried to put the horror behind them.
Seeing war (any war) as a fundamentally righteous endeavor, rather than a necessary evil, is getting awfully close to the mindset of the average mujahideen/shaheed.