Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sacrifice or waste: The war discussion we refuse to have

Published in the Juneau Empire, December 1, 2011

“I am ready to answer my nation’s call — NOW!” Those are the last words in the creed of Fort Wainright’s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team. In November, four of them answered their final call to duty in Afghanistan. Patriots and politicians would say they made the ultimate sacrifice defending America. But judging by how few stories about the war are broadcast or published by the news media, it’s equally appropriate to wonder if their lives were wasted on a forgotten battlefield.

The question isn’t intended to diminish the valor and dedication of anyone in the armed services now or in the past. The truth we must face though, is that if Americans really cared about our troops in Afghanistan there would be greater demand for news coverage. Instead, it’s taken a backseat to the budget crisis, the sagging economy, the race for the Republican Party presidential nomination, professional sports and Hollywood gossip.

Even many of the war’s most vocal critics have shifted their focus to issues of economic justice brought to life by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It’s also a fact that public support for the war is at an all time low. According to pollsters, you have to go back more than three years to find a steady majority of Americans expressing belief that we should finish what we started 10 years ago. From that perspective, it’s the Vietnam War all over again.

So what is the call that our soldiers are hearing if they know we’re not interested enough to follow their daily struggles? And if the public isn’t supporting the war, why would they believe it matters to us whether they win or lose? But here lies the problem. By confusing honor and service with winning and losing, we’re not capable of having a mature discussion about the distinction between sacrifice and waste.

This dilemma was captured in a weekend article about the Pentagon’s plans to reduce the U.S. Marines presence in Afghanistan in 2012. “At stake is President Barack Obama’s pledge to win in Afghanistan” wrote Associated Press reporter Robert Burns. “Also at stake are the sacrifices of the nearly 300 Marines killed in Afghanistan over the past three years.”

Following that line of thinking means there are 1,500 others who will have lost their lives for nothing if Obama pulls our troops out of Afghanistan before we’ve attained a decisive victory. It’s the same argument President George W. Bush used in 2006 as public support fell for the other war. “Retreating from Iraq” he claimed “would dishonor the men and women who have given their lives in that country, and mean their sacrifice has been in vain.”

In 2007 it was presidential hopeful Barack Obama who stepped across this conservative-defined line of political correctness. In the context of his opposition to “a war that should have never been authorized,” he said we had “seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted” in Iraq. Senator John McCain, Obama’s eventual opponent in the race to the White House, committed the same political sin a few weeks later.

Both candidates understood that telling the people what they don’t want to hear would cost them votes. That’s why they began making public apologies almost immediately after the word waste slipped out of their mouths. But I believe they should have stuck to their statements and forced Americans to examine the sacrifice we ask of any solider to make when we send them off to war.

If we look harder at the manner in which Burns wedded the idea of sacrifice to victory, it should be readily evident that no one wants to see anyone die for a lost cause — certainly not the soldiers who go to war believing they are answering the call of their nation. Unfortunately though, war thrives on waste, especially when it’s prolonged by politicians needing to win.

Waste is written all over President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s words about hating war: “Only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” And our failure to heed his battlefield earned wisdom has been the waste of an American imagination that’s capable of building a more peaceful and just world for us all.
by Rich in Juneau