Last night at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., a panel discussion was taped for broadcast on The Pentagon Channel on Veterans Day. Hosted by Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier, the symposium served as the kickoff event for the American Veterans Center’s annual two-day veterans’ conference. The panel featured several young veterans who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. They talked candidly to a packed audience about how they were wounded, how they recovered and how they are moving on with the next chapter of their lives. 

Unlike many former generations of veterans, this cadre of combat wounded seems very comfortable talking openly and honestly about their experiences. They reveal some of their and their families’ most intimate details – fresh and unvarnished. Public stories like these – of intense combat and equally intense and challenging recoveries – abound among today’s war veterans. Dozens of books have been published by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This panel boasted two authors in the group. Many more veterans have posted articles, diaries, blogs, songs and videos on the Internet. Some of these first memoirs started appearing soon after the first wave of veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Numerous documentaries, feature films and TV series have followed. 

In contrast, we didn’t see the first memoirs and films from Vietnam authors until several years after the conflict ended (with a few exceptions, like Tim O’Brien). What’s different? One of tonight’s panelists, former Army Staff Sgt. Michael Lipari is writing a documentary called “The Long Journey Home From Iraq.” He says, “I kept three journals when I was in Iraq and it was the most therapeutic thing I did.” Therapy? Isn’t that a word that would have made Vietnam veterans queasy to utter? Wouldn’t it have been career suicide to admit that you needed or submitted to therapy? Not now.

Another panelist, Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Workman, said completing his book Shadow of the Sword took two years. “There were times I laughed and times I cried,” he said. “But it was all about telling the stories of the Marines we lost…making sure they are never forgotten.” He also said it was the best therapy he has ever had.

Many of the stories are profoundly intimate and soul-baring. Perhaps the proliferation of reality TV makes this generation more comfortable with the mass distribution of their deeply personal life journeys and a magnifying glass on these lives. But perhaps it is also evidence that we have learned a lesson or two from Vietnam — that the veteran needs to be helped, not stigmatized.

There is no Wall, or memorial, for this generation of veterans to visit and assist in the healing process – at least not yet. There is no closure yet to this war. So, catharsis comes in many forms. Perhaps this more public form of therapy is a signature for this generation. Less than one percent of today’s American population serves in the military, so these stories can serve another constructive purpose: they can give the rest of us a glimpse at the lives of today’s soldiers and sailors and can remind us of their sacrifice.

Footnote: The American Veterans Center’s conference will be webcast live on Navy TV on Friday, November 5 and Saturday, November 6.

Posted by The Bunny in Army, Books, Marine Corps

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  • JD

    Another benefit is that it’s making sure that the history of these wars is written by those who were there. These memoirs may be the most accurate accounts we read for years to come.

  • Alan Hawk

    I am not so sure that this is that unusual. There are many memoirs and novels by veterans of the Civil War, First World War and Second World War. Many were written for family members and only published long after the fact. Some like Remark’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Sledge’s With the Old Breed have become literary classics. Perhaps Vietnam was the anomaly. What is so unusual is that these books are being published so soon. I think it is a response to the dearth of information in the mainstream media about the war.

  • The Bunny

    This was exactly my point. Indeed, there are a plethora of war novels and memoirs from almost all wars, but what’s different about the current collection of memoirs from today’s returning veterans is how soon after their return that they are publishing. No doubt technology has something to do with this, but I think there are other factors that I tried to elucidate in my article.