Newsweek and The Daily Beast's Hero Summit opened Thursday with a rousing bugle call, followed by a sobering account from a former State Department official about life after war.
J. Kael Weston, who spent seven years with the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan as a "renegade diplomat" working alongside U.S. Marines, said it's time for Washington to look itself in the mirror, much as a wounded soldier does after returning home from war with a new face.
"I do believe there are heroes out of these wars," he said. "I just don't see a lot of heroes in Washington—I could talk for hours about that. I'm not pointing fingers at anyone in the government. I think we owe it to our guys to look into the mirror."
Weston, speaking with Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran, said he feels the nation's capital needs to become more reflective on its reasons for going to war, and to be sure that the reasons warrant the sacrifice. He recalled a group of mullahs asking him "on a windy hilltop" in Afghanistan, "Why did you invade Iraq?" He wants to hear policymakers ask themselves those questions, he said.
"We're tired and a war-weary and war-wary nation," he said. "I don't want to tell stories that bring us down, but there are some reality checks that go beyond the Hollywood happy ending."
Washington has become too disengaged, too obsessed with "fundraising and the next election" he said, adding: "We need big people in big jobs, not small people in big jobs."
Describing his own ways of processing the tragedies he witnessed in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, he joked that he could relate to dogs now, since "every year in a war zone is like seven years." He said he's doing "a lot of hiking, biking, skiing, being far away from the city where there's way too much money," meaning Washington.
He also praised the military, "with all of its warts and issues and cockiness," saying, "if you're gonna be in a tough environment, there's no better group of people to be with." He added, "If a kid who's lost his face in war can come to terms with the new me, the new challenges, we as a nation can do that as well."