From Iraq, I boarded an “Angel Flight”—a cargo plane that ferried the dead—back to Kuwait in 2006. As the C-130 taxied away into the night, there was the consolation that the bodies of the American soldiers would be washed, well-tended, buried with honors, and, eventually, memorialized along parade routes. The living, too, would surely be greeted with floats and hurrahs when they left behind Iraq’s rotten, sand-blown landscape.
But, in fact, the parade routes have stayed quiet. Iraq veterans, apparently, merit neither bunting nor ticker tape. This is not as it should be. When the marching bands finally began playing for Vietnam veterans in the 1980s, it was said that never again would we deny a proper homecoming to American soldiers, misbegotten war or not. Love the soldier, went the never-persuasive refrain, hate the war. So why is it that nothing has been learned and nothing remembered? It is past time to celebrate Iraq’s veterans with a welcome-home parade.
Taking the lessons of Vietnam to heart, Americans in 1991 feted the veterans of a 100 hour war with a full-on ticker-tape parade in lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes. The ostentatious homecomings given Operation Desert Storm veterans were as much shows of self-congratulatory bravado as anything else—as if parades offered proof of a heightened sense of moral awareness—but, for the soldiers, they were well-deserved tributes.
Twenty years on, their fellow soldiers (and, in many cases, children) deserve nothing less. And, quite possibly, more: Iraq has gutted the ranks, killing nearly 5,000 men and women in uniform and wounding over 30,000 more. Walking on lower Broadway last week, however, all that I saw etched into the sidewalk were commemorations of ticker-tape parades from a distant past, feting baseball teams, astronauts, and veterans of ancient wars. The Iraq War has been memorialized, but only in makeshift shrines and plaques that, in the case of the brigade combat team (from the First Armored Division) I know best, were erected and paid for by the very soldiers dispatched to fight the war to begin with.
A proper homecoming would respond to multiple needs unrelated to glory as such. It would, first and last, do something to bridge the gap between soldier and civilian that not even the distance between Iraq and the United States could measure. The observation that American soldiers inhabited a different world from the Iraqis around them became a numbing cliché, but it was their remove from our own society that really should have unnerved us. In Iraq, the U.S. mission required sacrifice and killing. At home, the U.S. mission required easy certainties and narrative simplicity. A skewed image of the American soldier was the result, in the popular imagination either a hapless victim, or a brutal predator, or the custodian of everything virtuous about this nation (a reading with which the officer corps tends, worrisomely, to concur). Addressing the corps of cadets at West Point last week, the nation’s highest-ranking officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said of his fellow countrymen, “I fear they do not know us. I fear they do no not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.”
If what Mullen says is true, if civilians really have been assigned the role of spectators, wouldn’t a parade simply highlight this tragic distinction with a display of militarism? Quite the reverse: This would be a homecoming, a communal celebration and an expression of solidarity, not a Cromwellian procession of some New Model Army. “Nobody was able to absent himself from the festival, for no one was a mere spectator,” Jules Michelet wrote of a French Revolutionary jamboree. “All were actors.” And so it should be when the returned march up Broadway, with maneuver battalions and high school bands each taking their turns, the crowds entertaining and being entertained, soldiers finally within reach of the civilians for whom they sacrificed so much in Iraq. All of the garbage of the past decade—the reluctance to abide any measure that might constrain personal autonomy, the subordination of the public good to private wants, the war itself—ought , if even for a moment, to give way to a modest display of civic vigor.
And what better spot? The Statue of Liberty in 1886, General John Pershing in 1919, Winston Churchill in 1946, and the returning armies, always the returning armies—all were feted in lower Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes. With more than 200 such parades over the centuries, the latest in praise of wealthy athletes, is it really necessary to point out how wicked it would be to omit the million-plus Americans who have fought in Iraq over the past decade? With the bulk of the 48,000 troops still in Iraq set to be redeployed by the end of the year, why not begin planning now?
Thus far, and aside from the laudable exertions of New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat, and U.S. Representative Peter King, a Republican, the idea has gotten no traction at all. Exactly why this should be seems obvious. Yet never mind for a minute the wisdom of the war. Never mind, too, whether you insist it has been won or lost. The only question we should be asking is: Where do we find ticker tape in 2011?
Lawrence F. Kaplan is a contributing editor for The New Republic.
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