Service in a Time of Perpetual Conflict

December 10, 2014

 Elizabeth D. Samet, No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014).

The author writes from the perspective of the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Army. Therefore I have used the term “soldier” as a generic term for all members of the U.S. Armed Forces that served—soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coastguardsmen. I find it preferable to using service member when discussing this subject. And hey, I am a sailor!!


The smell of pizza brought into the departure center attracts the soldiers waiting to fly into the combat zone. No longer home but not yet at war, they have gone through the final process of confirming shots, checking paperwork, and getting the last lecture on general orders—no alcohol and no Playboy magazines. Most sit absorbed in their own thoughts, with earbuds playing their favorite tunes, snacking on the pizza that is a little cold and soggy. In the military, we often find ourselves “in between” — moving from base to base, from unit to unit, from military to civilian life. No man’s land, a term used to describe the land separating the frontlines of World War I is applied by Elizabeth Samet to describe the “time space” in which cadets trained at West Point after 9/11 move between the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan and their return to civilian life or to continue in the Army.

Dr. Samet takes the reader from the classroom at West Point where she teaches English literature to the cadets — the future officers of the Army — through their first years as officers, to their deployments to war zones, from which most returned, but some did not. She describes a West Point different from the one she arrived at prior to the attacks on 9/11. Since 2001, the campus and corps of cadets had become accustomed to war. She describes herself being in “an extreme case of war vertigo,” looking at the Department of Defense’s casualty list for the names of former students. She writes of a phone call that delivered the news of the death of a former student on the battlefield to whom she had just prepared a care package to send, and of the funerals of the men and women that she taught, coached, and remained friends with after they left the Point.

I wonder what will come of this generation when it’s all said and done. Where do we    go from here? How will our country remember the fallen and broken? Will it ever be enough?  —Letter from a U.S. Army captain serving in Afghanistan

Using a wide range of texts from Homer’s Odyssey to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Samet uses literature to help the reader understand the thoughts of these young cadets as they prepare for careers as soldiers and to go to war. Since the post-9/11 wars were launched, being deployed has becoming an increasingly normal state for former cadets. The book quotes one captain as calling them “…more normal than life at home.” With soldiers serving multiple tours, they have “commuted” to either Afghanistan, Iraq, or one of the other areas in which the U.S. military now operates under the idea of “perpetual conflict,” with short tours in “garrison” where “chickenshit makes military life worse than it has to be.” Semat compares the “commuter” style to “Odysseus, whose journey home to Ithaca proves more arduous than his war…”

Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war. In the absence of war, the realm of chickenshit tends to expand.

How can living in a war zone appear more normal than home? Lt. Mark Larson explains it thus: “As with anything that is done with enough repetition, deploying and training on a set schedule…becomes a habit. Do it for ten years and it becomes ingrained in the culture…The urgency is always there.”

The culture created over the last decade is linked to the poor treatment of Vietnam veterans and an equal and often mistaken belief that veterans returned from other “good” wars to parades and a grateful nation. Dr. Semat describes Odysseus returning home in disguise to kill those that had moved into his house and tells the story of a Chinese soldier “that went to war at fifteen [and] comes home at eighty to everything unrecognizable.” Coming home is never easy! With less than 1% of Americans having served in the military since 9/11, it becomes easy for a distorted outlook to emerge, creating unfortunate perceptions about how veterans might be reintegrated into society. As Samet puts, for instance, the “…serviceman has developed a habitual reliance on violence to solve his problems. By proving a veteran’s ability to kill, a service record sometimes makes him a likely suspect in violent crimes at home.” These reintegration challenges are echoed in lines of verse from the Revolutionary War era:

In times of war, and not before,
God and the soldier men adore;
When the war is o’er and all things righted,
The Lord’s forgot and the soldier slighted.

The former cadets deal differently with coming home. Semat tells how one captain sees homecoming as having another honeymoon with his wife. Another retreated to the St. Louis Priory School he had attended before West Point and its Benedictine monks, saying “…the priory is one of the only safe places I know; it is the only place where I know how to remember who I am and what I want to become.” While three members of the class of 2005 with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan bicycled across country before setting off on new careers or professional schools. “It marked their passage from a highly regimented mode of living to one whose outlines were not quite clear…On the cusp of new lives, even as they still were trying to make sense of the old ones.”

No Man’s Land leaves the reader thinking about the young officers described in the book and how the post-9/11 wars have affected the officers that came into the service expecting to fight. Moreover, one must consider the effect on the military in general. How do U.S. forces return to peacetime and a degree of permanence to the garrison environment that soldiers have not known for so many years? How will the nation care for the veterans that have returned? A disservice will be done to a generation of veterans if the nation ignores the issues and hides behind bunting and patriotic parades. Although Semat writes from the perspective of officers that graduated from West Point, the lessons that this book highlights include all veterans — officers, NCOs and soldiers — that have served.


Author’s note: The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act (HR 5059 and S2930) is before Congress. As a veteran, I ask that you contact your Congressmen and ask for their support. For more information, contact the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, VFW, American Legion or other veteran service organizations.


David A. Mattingly is retired from the U.S. Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer and is now a consultant on National Security issues.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army