December 8, 2009
A Fearful Price
By BOB HERBERT
I spoke recently with a student at Columbia who was enthusiastic about the escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He argued that a full-blown counterinsurgency effort, which would likely take many years and cost many lives, was the only way to truly win the war.
He was a very bright young man: thoughtful and eager and polite. I asked him if he had any plans to join the military and help make this grand mission a success. He said no.
There was an article in The Times on Monday about a new study showing that the eight years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking an emotional toll on the children of service members and that the difficulties increased the longer parents were deployed.
There is no way that the findings of this study should be a surprise to anyone. It just confirms that the children of those being sent into combat are among that tiny percentage of the population that is unfairly shouldering the entire burden of these wars.
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.
We already knew that in addition to the many thousands who have been killed or physically wounded, hundreds of thousands have returned with very serious psychological wounds: deep depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and so on. Other problems are also widespread: alcohol and drug abuse, family strife, homelessness.
The new study, by the RAND Corporation, was published in the journal Pediatrics. The children surveyed were found to have higher levels of emotional difficulties than their peers in the general population.
According to the study:
“Older youth and girls of all ages reported significantly more school, family and peer-related difficulties with parental deployment. Length of parental deployment and poorer non-deployed caregiver mental health were significantly associated with a greater number of challenges for children, both during deployment and deployed parent reintegration.”
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.
To say that this is a national disgrace is to wallow in the shallowest understatement. The nation will always give lip-service to support for the troops, but for the most part Americans do not really care about the men and women we so blithely ship off to war, and the families they leave behind.
The National Military Family Association, which commissioned the RAND study, has poignant comments from the children of military personnel on its Web site.
You can tell immediately how much more real the wars are to those youngsters than to most Americans:
“I hope it’s not him on the news getting hurt.”
“Most of my grades dropped because I was thinking about my dad, because my dad’s more important than school.”
“Mom will be in her room and we hear her crying.”
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.
I don’t think our current way of waging war, which is pretty easy-breezy for most citizens, is what the architects of America had in mind. Here’s George Washington’s view, for example: “It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal service to the defense of it.”
What we are doing is indefensible and will ultimately exact a fearful price, and there will be absolutely no way for the U.S. to avoid paying it.