Returning from Iraq, the Damage Done

It's easy to send soldiers off to war. It's harder to face them when they come home.
Returning from Iraq, the Damage Done

It's hard to say just when the word "hero" went bankrupt. But in the aftermath of 9/11, America became, to its own mind, a nation of heroes. We spread the word around like butter on toast. It has become cultural pabulum, a national panacea, a psychological commonplace. Children are now encouraged by well-meaning adults to grow up to become their own heroes, as if that wouldn't make them insufferable. And yet in a nation that is sick with celebrity, the word "hero" works in strange ways. We fear the elitism of the word, and so we democratize it, bestowing it everywhere, without really understanding what we're doing. In the past few years, our overuse of the word has trivialized the notion of duty and diminished the idea of professionalism. We say the word "hero" so much that we must be very afraid, as if a world full of heroes felt safer or at least more interesting. Somehow our lives suddenly seem to require heroism to sustain them. It's the password in an insecure world, the mantra we use against the dullness of ordinary life.

The men in these photographs are soldiers who were wounded in Iraq. Two of them were wounded in firefights. One was delivering ice. Another walked off into the desert on a bathroom break and stepped on a mine. One was wounded while blowing up a munitions dump. Two of the soldiers who look the least damaged are blind, far more damaged than the camera can record. Whatever they may feel about their condition now, these men tend to sum up our involvement in Iraq in simple, blunt phrases. Like this, from a double amputee: "The reasons for going to war were bogus, but we were right to go in there. Saddam was a bad guy."

No one has the right to say that these men are not heroes. But I also suspect that few people understand the contemporary hollowness of that word better than they do. Private Jessica Lynch is only the most recent in a long line of soldiers throughout history to dismiss the word. To a soldier coming home from war, the word "hero" looks surprisingly like a gesture of incomprehension, especially in our time when the word is on everyone's lips. It measures the appalling gap between civilians and soldiers, the inexplicable difference between peace and war.

Photos and Interviews by Nina Berman/Redux