Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Post #161 - Real World Consequences

When we (the United States) go to war, we do it in a way that is quite different from the way most countries do it. For starters, though we account for a huge proportion of the world's military expenditures (nearly half), we have a rather small percentage of our population who actually enter the military, and they are (these days) going in voluntarily. It's not like the Vietnam era, when there was a draft. It's not like Israel, where virtually every young person serves their time. It's not, thank God, like some countries where "soldiers" are impressed into an army at the age of fifteen, or twelve or younger, by brutal coercion.

The circumstances of our "raising" of a military force lead to some anomalies. First, we are, for the most part, blissfully unaware of the specifics of what it takes to prosecute a major conflict. We must never forget that he have not experienced war on our own turf, as it were, since the middle of the nineteenth century.  We also don't know our own troops -- the ones who ship out to the other side of the world to carry out our bidding.

Still from "Where Soldiers Come From"
In the new documentary "Where Soldiers Come From, " one sees that many young men (and women, of course, but mostly men) find themselves enlisting, being inducted and serving in the military often without any real sense of why they are doing it, or what the outcomes might be. They enlist because their buddy did, or because there is a tradition of service to the country. When they come home, they may still not know exactly why they were there, especially in the recent conflicts.  Are they virtuous?  That's a hard question, even for them.  Are they brave?  Yes.  Will they, after being trained and briefed, fight like hell to protect their comrades in arms (their buddies), try to stay alive, and to carry out their mission?  Certainly (probably in that order).

To some extent, every eighteen- or twenty-year-old does a lot of things on auto-pilot. We go to college if our parents did, we go into the family business because it's expected, we go to war because our father, or uncle or older brother did. And then...what happens happens. A lot happens.

The magazine DAV ("The Official Voice of the Disabled American Veterans and DAV Auxiliary") just featured an article entitled "Burden of War Growing." They didn't mean that the monetary cost to the American taxpayer is growing (though it is). They didn't mean that the political cost to the Obama administration is growing; it probably isn't. They were referring to the human cost in terms of injury and lost capacity to function.

A Pew Research Center survey they cited showed that of those who had served in combat, almost a quarter of them had become disabled. About half said that their health was fair or poor. Some 47% of soldiers with a spouse and/or children suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Matt Beaudoin, who suffers from traumatic brain injury
Now, I have had some experience with folks who have PTSD. Let me tell you that it is not something that you can shrug off, like a sinus headache or even a broken ankle. It is a trauma that changes who you are (in this case, as a husband or wife, as a father, and as a worker). Therefore, it is not hard to understand that fifty-four percent -- over half -- have trouble readjusting to civilian life. It helps explain why almost every day a returnee ends his or her own life.

The Veterans Health Administration director estimates that today's roughly $2 billion that it takes to care for the current crop of veterans may swell to as much as eight-plus billion in 2020 -- see, we can't very well just stop taking care of them just because the particular hostilities stop (if they stop).

These musings concern our own troops -- our own young people. What about all the others?

At Guantanamo, according to ACLU, 92% of those incarcerated have not been found to be al Qaeda fighters (reported in Time Magazine, January 23, 2011). Among the 779 we imprisoned, twenty-one were children, as young as thirteen. The oldest was 98. (One wonders how much of a threat he could be; apparently enough that he could not be held by civilian jails, or even brought into the United States proper, without endangering American citizens.) The vast majority were handed over to U.S. custody because we offered a bounty to someone to provide them. Some of them have spent ten years, without a trial to either condemn them or exonerate them.

The number of civilians that gave their lives to oust Saddam and usher in an uncertain new future has been estimated at 100,000 or more. Afghani deaths have yet to be properly counted, but will be considerable.

This is all generated by Iraq and Afghanistan. What will be generated by a strike (overt or covert) on Iran? How many pilots will have to fly over Iran, to observe or bomb, while Iranians attempt to shoot them down? How many will be on U.S. ships within range of Iranian missiles, planes or other craft? How many will be targeted at an embassy or just on the street, following the assault, in some country or another, just because the opportunity presents itself to some covert agent?

When the children or grandchildren of a soldier ask "why did you have to get hurt?." or "why did Daddy have to die? or "Why does Momma act that way?" it won't really matter very much whether it was to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, to stop al Qaeda in Afghanistan or to keep Iran from having a bomb. The question will be asked, and someone will attempt to answer it. Whatever answer they manage to give will likely be inadequate and will never satisfy the kid asking it.

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