Since the towers fell in 2001, America’s newest warrior generation has liberated two countries, battled two insurgencies, surged to victory in Iraq, and begun working toward the same outcome in Afghanistan. In the face of multiple tours, strategic errors, unforeseen injuries, and political posturing, our troops have forged ahead.
Having completed tours in Guantanamo Bay and pre-surge Iraq, I’ve seen the horrors of war and the virtues of valor, and I will soon spend a year fighting a battle many are calling “unwinnable” in Afghanistan. This decade and these experiences — on this Veterans Day — leave me reflecting on the legacy of our generation.
For fewer than 1 percent of Americans, war has consumed the past ten years; but for the majority of America, the wars are background noise. Signs mounted in command posts during my time in Iraq captured this sentiment well, reading “the Army and Marine Corps went to war; America went to the mall.” This dynamic remains true today.
We’re proud to be the 1 percent, not because we don’t want more help, but because we believe so deeply in our cause. We fight because our forefathers fought before us. We are the latest generation to stand guard to fight for the freedoms of our countrymen, and to embrace the burden of being the linchpin of the free world — no matter the mission.
Our generation of warriors understands that while militaries alone do not solve the world’s problems, there is no way to preserve peace, liberate peoples, or deter nuclear-armed dictators without the specter of military might. America’s historic allies are shrinking their armies and shying from conflict, but we mustn’t follow suit, because perpetual peace, while our dream for tomorrow, isn’t the reality of today’s fallen world.
While generations of Americans have taken to the battlefield, each faced different challenges abroad and at home. World War II veterans won their war, came home to victory parades, and fueled the growth upon which our country stands. Thirty years later, Vietnam veterans faced a much different reality. Undercut on the battlefield and spat upon at home, Vietnam veterans were left to wrestle largely in silence with the impact of their honorable service.
Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans came home to an amalgamation of these experiences. While America embraced our service, there was also a broadly shared and loudly expressed anti-war sentiment that threatened the very mission for which we fought. “We support the troops, but not the war” became the mantra representing this dangerous dichotomy. The support is deeply appreciated, but the patronizing is not.
We may not get victory parades — or be given the chance to win on some battlefields– but if we have learned one lesson from our fight, it’s resolve. Despite a multitude of military and political mistakes, and the expense of much blood and treasure, we have learned that success can be born of setbacks. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know that, with the courage to confront, the flexibility to adapt, and the perseverance to overcome, America cannot be beaten.
As for the future, we’re fighting for that, too. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may constitute only 1 percent of the population, but this year they are more than 5 percent of the newly elected members of Congress. Joining two already in Washington, the six veterans of the current wars arriving on Capitol Hill next year will ensure our veterans are properly represented. And all eight veterans believe the most important benefit we can give our veterans is the opportunity to defeat America’s enemies.
This new “victory caucus” in the House will speak with special authority on very important issues, especially turning the tide in Afghanistan, winning the peace in Iraq, preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, and ensuring that the Pentagon has adequate resources to project American power and preserve American interests around the world. Equally important, these new leaders understand that domestic economic strength underwrites America’s power and that the dictates of the Constitution are non-negotiable.
America’s warriors have answered the call for over 230 years; the challenge for this generation of veterans — as some continue the fight and others enter the political fray — is to harness our shared lessons to ensure that America’s best days remain ahead. This will require toughness against long odds and the nerve to make hard decisions. If this is not done by those to whom uncommon courage is a common virtue, then by whom will it be done?
– Pete Hegseth, a captain in the Army National Guard and executive director of Vets for Freedom, served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and will deploy to Afghanistan in 2011. He is currently a graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.