Sunday, January 13, 2008

War! (Good God, Y'all)

For those of you who wish to crow about America's impending victory in Iraq, the New York Times has a feature story in today's edition that you might want to avoid. Actually, if you have somehow managed to define victory down to the current bloody (but less bloody!) situation, then you probably don't read the Times anyway, preferring to get your news on Fox from former journalist Brit Hume. It is, of course, a wonderful thing that fewer U.S. soldiers and Marines are dying in Mesopotamia, but if a zero death count were the only goal of the mission, it seems like an immediate pullout would have done the trick far more effectively. Had we been told at the outset that the Iraq War would last into 2008, with troops still dying, bombs still exploding, and political stalemate in Baghdad seemingly unbreakable, the entire country would have taken to the streets. Instead, here we are nearly five years later listening to people like John McCain incessantly talk up the success of The Surge, as though losing less quickly were the same thing as winning.

Anyhow, according to the Times, there are "121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war." If my math skills haven't failed me, that works out to two deaths in the Homeland for each month that the war has persisted. Actually, in some of these instances, multiple lives were lost, so the true body count is even higher. Assuming, say, 150-200 killings in all, we have lost, at the hands of our own returning soldiers, the equivalent of the entire passenger and crew list for a fully loaded commercial aircraft. Of course, had such a jetliner succumbed to terrorism, the Bill of Rights would by now have been cancelled by our legally rapacious president and our predictably supine Democratic majority in Congress.

I grew up near a large military base and many of my childhood friends were the children of officers and enlisted personnel. On weekends, we shared the local malls and theaters with clean-shaven teenagers from rural Arkansas and urban Cincinnati, most of them away from home for the first time. They walked with an awkward swagger, pressed into adulthood at 17 or 18, and yet still insecure around local kids who were nearly their age. Mostly, they were just very, very young.

Military service has always been associated with odd disconnects from the rest of society. Many universities today require their freshmen to live on campus, believing that they are too inexperienced to deal with the temptations that await beyond the loving arms of alma mater. At the same time, we send their high school classmates halfway around the world to face a daily ritual of killing and carnage. Yesterday, they were all kids posing for graduation pictures; today, some are still kids, while others are warriors. If you are in my business, you look at and listen to your freshmen and you wonder how young men and women just like them can handle the burdens and responsibilities of life and death.

This is, of course, not the first generation of young Americans to be sent to war, nor will it be the last. For every post-adolescent veteran who comes home mentally damaged, hundreds return to lead productive, successful lives. War is, at its heart, a demanding physical activity, and it makes sense to leave it to those whose vigor is greatest and whose reflexes are sharpest. Still, I think of my freshmen, some so mesmerized by the sights and sounds of a medium-sized, somewhat urban college town, and I remember that many of these people we insist on calling heroes are really just kids. To be sure, quite a few of them act heroically in the course of battle, but the impact of war on a post-adolescent psyche must be tremendous.

As others have already noted, the other salient feature of the current war is the extent to which it separates participants and spectators. The fighting that is so deeply personal to the 18-year olds who patrol Baghdad remains almost entirely irrelevant to the lives of my students. Veterans of World War II knew that national involvement in their conflict was total, and that sacrifices—lesser sacrifices, to be sure, but sacrifices still—were being made on the homefront as well. The Iraq War, by contrast is little more than an unending reality show for those who have no family members at risk. This, too, must be painfully disconcerting for the troops returning home, particularly knowing that they will likely be asked to go back to the Middle East for yet another tour of duty.

And the fighting itself, as the Times points out, maximizes stress and terror. There are no front lines in the current conflict. Death can come at any time from any source. Even soldiers in Vietnam knew that they could generally walk the streets of Saigon in relative safety. Surge or not, American forces know that danger still lurks on every Baghdad street corner.

Meanwhile, men who know of combat only that they avoided it make obscene noises about victory and perseverance. (John McCain, obviously one of the few wartime cheerleaders who is a combat veteran, simply ought to know better.) Joe Lieberman, who has killed nothing more than a judicial nomination, struts like Patton, howling his approval of this five-year conflict that has cost so much and accomplished so little. The Surge has evidently worked because we have gone from two mourning American families per day to one, never mind that the lofty goal of Iraqi liberty has been downsized into hopes for some form of peaceful coexistence between factions. A couple of days ago, in another tacit admission of failure, Saddam Hussein's political party was again legalized. Democracy marches forward.

It is easy, in all this talk of warriors and heroes, to forget that the people we are sending to this perpetual conflict are not supermen and superwomen. They are young Americans, as brave and gallant and flawed as the rest of us. And at least some of them are coming home terribly damaged.

This, more than anything else, is the reason that you don't fight wars of choice. The fantasies of men in think tanks and the ambitions of power hungry politicians are not good enough. The stakes are too high and the damage is too great. Almost nobody would have agreed to exchange over three thousand (mostly) young American lives for Iraqi democracy. The fact that we did the first without achieving the second should haunt this administration until history renders its final, scathing judgment.

Meanwhile, a 61 year old draft dodger is on the move again, warning us that Iran is the latest threat to…something.

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