All Our Lives: US Teenagers, Iraq and Afghanistan
My name is Ann, I am 14 years old, and for as long as I can remember my country has been at war. I was born in October of 1997; we entered Afghanistan in October of 2001. I was a few weeks away from turning four, and my memories of that time are few and hazy. For all intents and purposes, I have lived my life in this fight. In fact, I cannot remember a time when there were not stories about increasing troop casualties, cannot imagine a political debate where “What to do in Iraq and Afghanistan” wasn’t at least mentioned.
Never before in history
At the same time, though, my childhood was, scarily, pretty disattached from the wars. While there have, of course, been many kids who’ve grown up during wars (my mother, for example, lost an older brother in Vietnam when she was just five), I believe that the experience of my generation is unique. Never before in history have we had this kind of a war: a long, drawn-out conflict where the casualties gradually accumulate and there are no battles, just guerilla warfare and drone strikes. Never before has America been in a war where, instead of pulling together and doing everything possible to support our troops, we lowered taxes on the rich and ignored the war in most of our political discussions. This time around, we do not have drives for old clothes, and there are no “decisive battles” or even a clear definition of “victory.”
Damage is done
To my generation, therefore, America’s wars have become a sort of fuzzy reality, taking up the kind of background space that is normally reserved for things like the European debt crisis and the Mexican drug cartels- something big, something important, but also complicated and a little hard to understand; something that is wildly controversial yet requires a real depth of understanding to have an informed opinion on. Since “having an informed opinion” means doing some research, most of my teenage peers don’t know that much, and since there is little coverage in the mainstream media (compare that to the Vietnam protests or rah-rah patriotism WWII videos; regardless of your opinion of those points of view, at least you knew that something was going on). We have little opportunity to learn more, and frankly, this terrifies me. Yes, we have pulled out from Iraq, and the end is in sight in Afghanistan, but the damage has already been done.
Imagine a world without war?
I have lain awake at night, sometimes, trying to conceive of what my world would be like without war in it. Honestly, I can’t picture it. I would imagine that it would be wonderful — that I would no longer have to wonder if every camoflauged officer I see in the airport will make it back home, that there will no longer be the heartrending pictures of mothers and fathers crying over caskets draped with American flags, that I will no longer feel that horrible pull at my heart when I see the children rush into a returning soldier’s arms and wonder how many other little girls and boys have had their childhoods blown up in one roadside bomb.
But while I can imagine, I can’t know what it would be like, because that is not how I’ve grown up. Instead, I have heard of video games like COD and Black Ops, where my classmates glory in their “kill streaks” and “juggernaut suits.” I have, for as far back as memory goes, commemorated 9/11 with my parents looking sad, and horrible YouTube videos of things that only happen in movies: planes crashing, people falling down like feathers from 90th-story windows, an entire city blanketed in ash. I know to wear slip-ons to the airport, because you have to take them off when you go through security (“Wait- you mean you didn’t always have to? But then what did you do? You mean you just went through the scanners with them on?”).
I know that we are maybe losing this thing called the War on Terror, except nobody really knows what it is. I also know about IEDs, and rocket-propelled grenades, and drone strikes. I know about the Taliban, and Bin Laden, and Al Quada — names that in any other context could be toy brands, car manufacturers, friends. I know too much, and yet not enough, because while I can tell you the names of all of our weapons, I’m not really sure how we got into this conflict in the first place. I can tell you about casualty numbers, and truck bombings, and what flower you wear on Veteran’s Day, but I can’t say how to get out without causing even more damage. And while I know that I don’t know, most of my peers don’t either.
What will we be like?
Mostly, though, I worry about how my generation will act when we grow up. Having seen the images of explosions and legless men and women, having watched the mushroom cloud of a truck bombing and learned all about grenades, will my peers know that this is not okay? Since nobody in politics seems to think this is important, since lowering taxes on the wealthy, denying women the right to control their own bodies, and forcing LGBT people back into second-class citizenship is more of a priority right now, will my generation think that war is no big deal? Since only 1% of our country is actually fighting, since most Americans don’t know any active servicemembers, will we simply write off their contributions and sacrifices? Will our experiences affect how we feel about Iran or Syria? One day, will it change our votes? I have no idea the answers to these questions, but they are what keep me up at night.
I am the next generation, and I am afraid for our future.