A Brief History of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a long and complicated history that must be told in order to better understand the sacrifices of our volunteer army.

| October 2012

For many of our returning veterans, there's no real homecoming from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Invisible Wounds of War (Prometheus Books, 2012) reveals the lingering impact that the longest wars in our nation's history continue to have on far too many of our finest young people. In this excerpt from Chapter 1, Marguerite Guzman Bouvard provides the horrific and complex historical backdrop to the conflicts that continue to this day.  

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A Volunteer Army

In the United States, the army is a volunteer army. It is carrying the burden and experiencing the dreadful consequences of two long wars, the longest in American history: Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan. Most of the soldiers have been redeployed many times to make up for the low number of troops. One marine was redeployed six times despite having sustained injuries. Because these wars are fought by a volunteer army, few Americans have any personal stake in them or even know about what is happening in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Previous wars were covered extensively by the media, but only in the past few years have the efforts of US soldiers on the ground been made public. Returning soldiers should be honored and respected for their sacrifices. Learning about the hidden wounds they carry home with them is a matter of human rights, not only because their suffering is unseen but also because so many of them receive neither adequate mental healthcare nor the support they need to regain social trust and to become reintegrated into society.

People enlist in the army for a number of reasons. For example, one woman wanted to get a job and thus get away from an abusive husband. Another woman was dissatisfied with her work and thought the army might be a good place for her. For yet another young man, becoming a soldier was a way out of a dangerous neighborhood; he hoped to build a better life.

Many young people enlist for socioeconomic reasons. They are promised that they will be able to retire after twenty years. They see the military giving them money or college opportunities that once only seemed like distant possibilities. Some young men and women enlist because their parents asked them to leave home and get a job. Many who just graduated from high school are looking for a purpose in life. A number of young people enlist to get away from dysfunctional families and seek a better life.

Among those who enlisted were many young men, like Noah Charles Pierce and Alexander Hohl, who had dreamed of joining the army since they were very young because they wanted to serve their country. A young man, a classics major at Dartmouth College, decided to join the Marines in 1998. It never occurred to him that he would end up in a combat situation. He felt he should join because he was privileged. There were young men who wanted to become heroes, and many of them did, but in ways that they never expected.