With the fall of the Soviet Union later that year, America’s defeat in Vietnam suddenly looked like an anachronistic speed bump on the road to ultimate victory in the Cold War. The U.S. military, which had been greatly strengthened under former President Ronald Reagan, was clearly without peer. Any country insane enough to challenge the United States militarily would be smashed in a matter of weeks, if not days.
Throughout the 1990s, U.S. troops were dispatched to the former Yugoslavia on missions that seemed to underscore America’s military might. NATO’s campaign to assist Kosovar Albanians against the Serbs was conducted entirely from the air. Even though the airstrikes were far from crippling, the notion of ground combat no longer seemed relevant.
The myth of America’s invincibility did not wear off immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. Initially, the United States was able to rout the Taliban with a handful of special operators and CIA officers backed by overwhelming airpower.
America had seemingly avoided the trap of sending thousands of troops to the “Graveyard of Empires,” and we all had a good laugh at the Russians.
Things began to change with the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. This was not the Gulf War, where Americans were awed by grainy television images of smart bombs blowing up targets with God-like accuracy. This became a war of ambushes, roadside bombs, and enemies who did not wear uniforms.
Troops on the ground stacked up to clear rooms as the war devolved into urban fighting. Every trip outside the wire became as suicidal as going over the top in World War I. The term “Improvised Explosive Device” – or “IED” – became synonymous with death and severe injury.
America seemed less awe inspiring as multimillion dollar equipment was destroyed by bombs detonated with 19th Century technology. Eventually, Afghanistan too became a war of IEDs, suicide bombers, terrorists, and invisible wounds.
Advances in technology saved the lives of countless troops who would have died in previous wars, but they also had to endure blast-related injuries that left them in soul-crushing pain. It would take years for the military to acknowledge that service members who survived blasts seemingly unscathed were actually suffering from mild Traumatic Brain Injury.
The military and Department of Veterans Affairs gave the Forever War generation dozens of pills – too many to count – to keep them whole. Many washed down their meds with alcohol, a potentially fatal combination.
The enduring legacy of Sept. 11 is how the American concept of war has changed. Wars are no longer quick and easy. They are endless, and while troops deploy to combat zones over and over again, most civilians have no idea who they are fighting or why.
It will be up to the Forever War generation to begin the healing. Those who have survived have an obligation to succeed where the Baby Boomers failed and stop the United States from sending its sons and daughters into harm’s way for unattainable goals.
Your task will be to prevent future generations from being treated as if they were expendable.