NYT columnist Bob Herbert has a worthy read today. He takes the story of the American soldier who shot five other U.S. soldiers last week to remind us that war, as we all seem to forget every twenty years or so, is always full of unforeseen consequences.
Herbert is writing about PTSD, combat stress, and the other pyschological trauma of war that gets lip service with little action. He writes: “The psychic toll of this foolish and apparently endless war has been profound since day one. And the nation’s willful denial of that toll has been just as profound.”
Towards the bottom of the piece, he makes a point that can’t be made often enough–the burden of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being felt by a ridiculously small part of the population. This is unheard of in American history for such a long conflict. In WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, there was a draft, and the constant turnover of civilians to soldiers gave U.S. society a better understanding of what war actually was and what its costs were. (And a more realistic picture of what the military is.)
Because we have chosen not to share the sacrifices of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrible burden of these conflicts is being shouldered by an obscenely small portion of the population. Since this warrior class is so small, the same troops have to be sent into the war zones for tour after harrowing tour….[SNIP]
… We’re brutally and cold-bloodedly sacrificing the psychological well-being of these men and women, which should be a scandal. If these wars are so important to our national security, we should all be engaging in some form of serious sacrifice, and many more of us should be serving.
But the country soothes its conscience and tamps down its guilt with the cowardly invocation: “Oh, they’re volunteers. They knew what they were getting into.”
There is a delusional nature to pretending that we can keep fielding an all volunteer force that’s cut off from American society and do so without consquences. It used to be understood (and I’m paraphrasing Andrew Bacevich here, so don’t go all MoDo on me) that doing one’s civic duty might very well include time in a uniform. Now, our civic duty is just to say, “I support the troops,” and that’s considered enough. But thanking a soldier in the airport, or buying a box of girl scout cookies, doesn’t quite cut it.