With a cigarette dangling from his lips and blood and war paint smeared across his shell-shocked face, a quick snapshot of Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, staring at the sun rise over the burnt-out buildings of Fallujah, turned him into an accidental poster of American courage in Iraq.
Appearing on the front pages of newspapers and on televisions across the United States in 2004 as the "Marlboro Marine," the photo struck a chord with Americans, who were beginning to question whether the mighty superpower could handle a rag tag of Iraqi militia soldiers and whether the US should even be in the country in the first place. In this one image by Los Angeles Times photojournalist Luis Sinco, Americans found their symbol of strength in a time of chaos. The public showered him with care packages of cigarettes.
Little did they know that a week after he left Fallujah, Miller had the barrel of his gun lodged in his mouth with his finger on the trigger, ready to commit suicide. Haunted by the horrors he had seen and done in Iraq, the famed Marlboro Marine's mental state had completely collapsed.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but unable to get the psychiatric help he desperately needed, Miller unraveled when he returned to America. During a Hurricane Katrina mission, Miller snapped and assaulted another sailor, resulting in his discharge from the army. His marriage fell apart, he drank heavily and he flirted with suicide again. Three years after becoming an American icon, Miller is now a mess of a man – all for a war in which he can no longer find any meaning.
"What have we gained as a country?" Miller asked Sinco. "What have we actually accomplished other than the loss of some damn fine people – people willing to give their life for the country that we have, for this nation, for the freedom that we have."
As the five-year anniversary of the Iraq War approaches, America has a loaded gun lodged in its mouth. After five years of lies, incompetence and disorder, the US is facing a moral crisis that it may not survive.
Swept up by a sense of righteousness after the 9/11 attacks, America felt it had justice on its side when it went hunting for Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Armed with international support and sympathy for its "War on Terror," the US reveled in a resoluteness that hadn't existed since the early days of the Cold War. But the seams came apart when the US went looking for non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the ensuing quagmire in Iraq created what New York Times columnist David Brooks has called an "Age of Skepticism."
As Brooks notes, war is a cultural event that defines a generation. For the US, the First World War destroyed an old social order, the Second World War created a sense of greatness, and Vietnam triggered a counterculture movement. Iraq, however, has created an era of cynicism.
"The chief cultural effect of the Iraq War is that we are now entering a period of skepticism," writes Brooks. "Many Americans are going to be skeptical that their government can . . . mold reality according to our designs or solve the deep problems that are rooted in history and culture."
With the sorrow and sensationalism of 9/11 long faded, Americans are now being forced to come to terms with the realities of the Iraq War. While all of America's previous wars were fought on some pretense of defending or defeating an ideology (independence, slavery, imperialism, fascism, communism, terrorism), the Iraq War doesn't give the country any positive or negative symbol to rally around. It is a war of lies that has killed more than a million civilians, and has actually done more to encourage terrorism than destroy it. Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the nation would try to create an icon out of Miller and why Miller, in turn, would try to take his own life.
In Iraq, US soldiers are involved in what is called 360-degree combat, which means there is no front line. Instead, the brutality of war comes screaming at them from all angles, at all times. And since there is no civilian draft, the volunteer army that Rumsfeld felt so confident would win the war in a few months has been stretched far beyond its limits over the past five years. US soldiers are now required to do longer and more intense tours of duty, with less time off than ever before.
Considering the stress they're coping with, soldiers need to have confidence that they're dying and killing for a cause they believe in or major mental breakdowns occur. And since the Bush administration has given no real meaning or purpose for the Iraq War, there is an increase in trauma. Iraq veterans are now suffering from higher rates of suicide, PTSD, alcohol and drug abuse, divorce and homelessness than in any previous war.
"Soldiers come back from the war and they're sitting in their history class and the professor says, 'It's now an established fact that George W. Bush lied to start the war,' and the veteran is confronted with the lies and betrayal," says Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. "It exacerbates their illness."
Like a canary in the coal mine, the mental health of the solider is a gauge for the health of the nation. As Iraq veterans struggle with the senselessness of their actions, the Iraq War has plunged America into a state of disillusionment. Trust in the government has fallen to half what it was in 2001, and roughly two-thirds of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction. But instead of creating a groundswell of discontent, the country is turning increasingly apathetic. When Americans should be out in the streets demanding change, they're out shopping at the mall.
"In skeptical ages, people are quick to decide that longstanding problems, like poverty and despotism, are intractable and not really worth taking on," writes Brooks. "They find it easy to delay taking any action on the distant but overwhelming problems, like the deficits, that do not impose immediate pain."
The Marlboro Marine is now living in a trailer behind his father's house in Kentucky and has joined a motorcycle gang called the Highwaymen. He lives off his army disability checks and carries a 9mm semiautomatic with him wherever he goes. While he has tried to raise awareness across the country about PTSD, his main focus is coping with his own destructive depression. Once an icon of American power, Miller has become a symbol of its sickness.
As America's War on Terror continues to spiral out of control, the country's despondency couldn't have come at a worse time. With the world facing serious political, social and environmental challenges, the need for change is greater than ever before. But just when the country should be using the lessons in Iraq to assume a new sense of justice, the war has left it shell-shocked and struggling to find meaning. Until the country comes to terms with its demons, it will float without direction, taking the rest of the world with it. *