At the time of his death, I was twelve years younger than the first casualty of the Iraq War. It was March 21st, 2003, and I was thirteen years old. He was Brian Matthew Kennedy, a Corporal from my hometown of Houston, Texas; he was killed in a helicopter crash in the southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr. He was twenty-five.
Now I am twenty-four, the same age as the last causality from that conflict, Cesar Cortez, Private 1st class from Oceanside, California, killed in February of 2012.
In hindsight, perhaps this timetable should not be all that surprising. Since the Second World War ended in 1945, the United States has been engaged in one war or another for 61 of those 68 years, with the only exceptions being from 1992 to 1994 and 1997 to 2001. On a global scale, this tendency towards conflict features an even more chilling ratio. The American historian Will Durant estimated that, in the entire span of human history, there have been only twenty-nine years in which there has not been a war going on somewhere.
Yet if we narrow our gaze to the current era, the war in Iraq and its counterpart in Afghanistan are still anomalous because of their lengths. They are the two longest wars the United States has fought: 9 years and 6 months and 12 years and 1 month, respectively. For some context, we fought for 9 years in World War One, World War Two, the Korean War, and the Persian Gulf War combined.
Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been – and continue to be – the products of decisions made by policymakers in DC, decisions in which public interest and political risk have never truly aligned with the massive, tragic cost in American life and treasure. In his new book Breach of Trust, Boston College professor and Vietnam War veteran Andrew Bacevich likens the disproportionate burden borne by our military to an inversion of the Occupy Movement’s 99% paradigm. Our military, Bacevich argues, has become the neglected 1% carrying the load for the rest of the country, as its young men and women see numerous deployments through endless wars, and return to a backlogged Veterans Administration unable to meet their financial and psychological needs.
In a recent interview, Bacevich reflected on the fundamental inequality of our military system, saying,
One of the things I try to emphasize is the contrast between the post-9/11 wars and World War II, the so-called “good war”, the last war that we actually won outright. A war that was fought by citizen soldiers.
And not by accident, a war in which our leaders, from President Roosevelt on down, said that this will be a people’s war: there will be sacrifice across the board, it will be fought with the people’s army, even citizens who are not in the army will participate in their own way — their taxes will go up, not down, like after 9/11.
Their penchant for consumption will be curbed for the duration, not indulged, as was the case after 9/11. So part of the argument is that a war waged by citizen soldiers that engages the energies and the attention of the American people is, in fact, more likely to result in success, victory, and political objections achieved.
Bacevich then widens his argument into an analysis of how, somewhat paradoxically, our professional army, which is in most ways qualitatively superior to a conscripted one, has consistently struggled to pacify indigenous resistance and end conflicts in victory.
What Bacevich fails to fully integrate is the fact that there are two equally pernicious sides to this coin. On the one hand, the U.S. population has been insulated to an appalling degree from the material and human costs of these wars. Putting aside the ethical questions of private military contractors, those institutions which actually make money from these conflicts, there is a considerable moral hazard when a professional, mercenary army is funded through any source apart from revenue raised through the people. Instead, we’ve put these wars on the credit card.
Moreover, in terms of the human costs of these wars, we have again been disgracefully disconnected. As of last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs has stopped releasing the number of non-fatal casualties of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. The International Business Times suspects this is an attempt to conceal a “grim milestone”: the 1 millionth American service man or woman who has returned home maimed or wounded.
Yet what we should see in the homecoming of these impossibly brave people is obscured by the context in which we see them return.
So often, veterans are shown returning home at the halftime of NFL games, their teary-eyed families rushing across the field for an adoring hug, as reverent claps and raucous chants of “USA!” reverberate through the stadium. In this contrived ceremony, many Americans believe they have seen the typical homecoming: a healthy soldier in uniform, his doting wife, proud children, and the appreciative cheers of a grateful nation. Yet far more veterans will come home to troubles — physical, psychological, interpersonal and financial — which are often direct or indirect consequences of their deployments. But at the football game, you clap, you cry, and you absolve yourself of responsibility to that overjoyed family on the field.
In the most morally challenging segment of Bacevich’s book, he compares this empty piety to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” – the grace we award ourselves without actually having earned. He summarizes the concept: “It is grace that enables you to feel you are virtuous when in fact you are complicit in wrongdoing. And I think that actually describes the relationship between the American people and the American military.”
Still, as in any relationship, it’s always worth looking at the other party involved. In this case, it is the American military, which is increasingly becoming a culturally, politically, and even physically isolated segment of American society. In last Friday’s Washington Post, veterans Philip Carter and Lt. Gen. David Barno wrote a damning article on “our most exclusive gated communities,” namely, our domestic military bases. In it, they write,
The geographic isolation of military bases further divides the services from society. The military increasingly concentrates itself on large bases nowhere near major population centers. Rural settings afford vast ranges and runways for training purposes, but they limit interaction with civilians.
And the implications of this are significant. As the authors note,
City-dwellers, including the nation’s political and business elites, may rarely see service members in uniform — perpetuating the military’s tendency to draw recruits from rural, Southern and Western populations. And when jobs are scarce in the communities surrounding bases, it makes the transition of veterans out of the military especially difficult.
Such an analysis squares with some complementary data recently released about the current U.S. Congress, which showed that only 20% of its members are veterans, down from almost 75% as recently as 1980.
Yet this disparity alone does not bother me – after all there were more World War II veterans alive and active thirty years ago – but it is troubling for another reason that no pundit is yet to point out: for the first time since the Second World War (and perhaps in our nation’s history), the percentage of veterans among members of Congress (20%) is lower than the percentage of male veterans among society at large (24%).
What this apparently minor discrepancy reflects is the undesirable impact of our current professional military system. By offering financial incentives to attract and keep a permanent military class – a subset of people we respect in gesture but keep at arms length – we have created a culture wherein the costs of war are unseen by the population and unacknowledged by their representatives. It is in this self-reinforcing, mutually-destructive machinery that we can see the engines of our endless wars.