Our Obligation to Refugees

blog_TravisW_300.jpgLike most Americans, I believed that freeing Iraq from Saddam Hussein would manifestly improve the lives of its people and make the world safer. This was a painfully naïve assumption. Since the invasion of Iraq, millions of Iraqis and middle easterners have been displaced or died violently, and the war gave birth to ISIS, which in turn contributed to the war in Syria.

That war has created the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and we cannot put all the blame on ISIS and the Assad regime. The inescapable reality is that we were the single largest cause of Iraq’s spiral into violence and chaos (and subsequently, the region as well). For both myself and some other Iraq war veterans, the unfolding tragedy in Iraq, Syria, and the region has prompted a personal reckoning.  

Combat Veterans sometimes carry a burden of moral injury. For us, it is deeply personal wound. Ever since Odysseus found his way home from Troy, the returning warrior seeks to understand his or her experience, and to find positive, creative, and constructive ways to heal and contribute to his or her community. In a sense, it can be seen as an attempt to regain some trust in the integrity of the political community we served.

I feel a moral obligation to do what I can to help refugees from Iraq and Syria. I have worked with Veterans for Peace in Boston, helping with clothing and meal donations for the Iraqi populations in the cities of Lynn and Lowell; and while such participation was cathartic for me, it was far from adequate. Expressing myself on this matter and giving voice to the realities these refugees have faced – and encouraging other Iraq veterans to do the same – is only a start. For if I can help those whose lives that war has destroyed, I can perhaps ease the guilt and shame I feel over being in part responsible for this humanitarian crisis.

Along these lines, I urge my fellow veterans to speak up in opposition to the fear-mongering politics being deployed by so many of our nation’s political leaders in response to the refugee crisis. Despite a complete lack of evidence, the governors of 32 states have proclaimed the admission of refugees to be a security threat and threatened to withdraw from the resettlement process. At the same time, various political candidates—including many who supported the invasion and occupation in Iraq—are falsely claiming that refugees have committed acts of terrorism in the United States. Those of us who understand that we are in part responsible for these refugees fleeing their home countries can counter these unfounded claims, and expose them for what they really are – politics at its worst.

Our nation is, by tradition and identity, a place that provides safety and opportunity to those fleeing persecution and violence. All the more so if it is persecution and violence that we created or contributed to. When Emma Lazarus penned her timeless words of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she was referring to the first Jews fleeing Russian pogroms in the 1880s. As many veterans understand firsthand, it is our moral obligation to help these refugees, and necessary to restoring faith in our country.

Joining the military is an act of faith in one’s government, a faith that your superiors will use your life well. For both myself and other Iraq war veterans, that faith was fundamentally shattered when we compared the claims to the realities of the Iraq War, and we are still grappling with the consequences of this — for ourselves, the people in the Middle East, and the refugees seeking protection in the United States.

Like veterans of previous generations, many of us are seeking to reconcile our participation in war with our own humanity. We want to feel that our service meant something and to participate in a constructive cause. The popularity of groups like The Mission Continues, Team Rubicon, Warrior Expeditions, and Warrior Writers are a testament to our desire to make sense of our collective tragedy, to continue to serve, and to reconnect with some of our idealism prior to joining the military.

Referring to the Iraq War, Retired General Colin Powell famously said, “If you break it, you own it.” We broke the region. And while we do not ‘own’ these refugees, the reality is this: we ‘own’ an obligation to help them. It is well past time to heed that obligation.

Travis Weiner is an Army veteran and law student at the University of Colorado Law School.