Possibly the most poignant line of the 1984 breakout hit "19" by electronic musician Paul Hardcastle was the one it deliberately drove home with synthesized drumbeat repetition: "In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26. In Vietnam he was nineteen…nineteen."
When this song hit the radio airwaves, much of the Vietnam veteran cohort—those who had seen the worst fighting in that war—had been home for a little more than a decade. They were in their early 30s now—building careers, raising families, and politically active. The war's horrors and fallout began reemerging in national headlines and sympathetic Hollywood films, along with Agent Orange and PTSD. A page had turned, too, in the national consciousness. Americans were finally beginning to separate their anger at the government from the young men who fought its war. The mantra became internalized: never again.
"Never" did not mean never, of course, and 20 years after Hardcastle's cult hit, Washington sent more than two million American men and women into wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the heaviest fighting occurring between 2003 and 2010. Many of those veterans are now more than a decade home—building careers, raising families, politically active. On this Veterans Day, TAC asked five of its regular writers to tell us in their words how they've come to terms with their own service and what they think of American society as the wars continue quietly, indefinitely, and off the national radar.