Tuesday, December 08, 2009

By Design, Not By Accident

When it comes to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Bob Herbert is upset that there's so little shared sacrifice, and many vocal proponents of the war have no interest in putting themselves on the line.
The idea that fewer than 1 percent of Americans are being called on to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and that we’re sending them into combat again and again and again — for three tours, four tours, five tours, six tours — is obscene. All decent people should object.

* * *

The air is filled with obsessive self-satisfied rhetoric about supporting the troops, giving them everything they need and not letting them down. But that rhetoric is as hollow as a jazzman’s drum because the overwhelming majority of Americans have no desire at all to share in the sacrifices that the service members and their families are making. Most Americans do not want to serve in the wars, do not want to give up their precious time to do volunteer work that would aid the nation’s warriors and their families, do not even want to fork over the taxes that are needed to pay for the wars.
I recognize that Herbert's intimate experience with war was in an era during which we had a draft, while now we have a volunteer military. Sure, you can question how voluntary the military becomes once "stop-loss" policies kick in, or that some people choose the military out of economic need rather than out of a desire to become soldiers, but those arguments are peripheral to the issue of shared sacrifice. Even during the days of the draft, the children of the wealthy and connected could find ways out of service, or ways to avoid putting their lives on the line, so the sharing of the sacrifice was still not particularly egalitarian.

But more to the point, the military has switched to "all volunteer" both because it makes for a better military and because our nation's political leaders recognize that it's easier to fight wars without calling on the general public to share the sacrifice. In that earlier era, the student Herbert found who called for a "full-blown counterinsurgency effort, which would likely take many years and cost many lives" could easily have been a kid named Dick Cheney. In fairness to the Dick Cheneys of the world, and call it selfishness if you will, if not wanting "to serve in the wars" means "not wanting to get shot at on a battlefield" it's arguably evidence of sanity. The "shared sacrifice" imposed in the era of the draft was coercive.

I believe, actually, that a lot more Americans would volunteer to help support the families of deployed troops if they had a sense of how they might do that. I also believe that our government should spend more attention (and money) on reintegrating troops back into society post-combat. Without making excuses for anybody who "goes off the deep end" after their return to the U.S., there's an enormous transition to be made from being in combat to being back with your family - and even bigger if your family isn't there to support you. I spoke with a veteran of the Afghanistan War who described how he was greeted by his mother upon his return home, and knew the moment he saw her that his wife had left him - with an empty house and an empty bank account. He commented that it took about two years to transition out of the combat mindset, and to get back into a state of enjoying a "normal life" that initially seemed boring. By way of support, the military should have offered him more than a pat on the back on his way out the door.

But I digress. Herbert nails it here:
The reason it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to continue fighting year after year after year, is because so few Americans feel the actual pain of those wars. We’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World Wars I and II combined. If voters had to choose right now between instituting a draft or exiting Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops would be out of those two countries in a heartbeat.
The political leaders who started this war, and the political leaders who want to continue the wars, don't want that type of pressure. So they continued a system carefully constructed by their like-minded predecessors - no pressure on us means no pressure on them.

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