Thursday, March 01, 2007

Shameless

[This essay originally appeared on Often Right, Rarely Correct--ed.]

One of the most important reasons to oppose a war, in any form, with Iran, is the one no one wants to admit exists: We, as a nation, do not support our troops. I don't mean that we don't support their mission, or that we spit on them and call them baby killers when they return home from war, or that we secretly want them to lose so we can fulfill our lifelong dream of being buggered by brown-skinned whirling dervishes screaming "Allahu akbar!" as they tickle our prostates. We do not support our troops because we don't care about them once their ability to kill said brown-skinned whirling dervishes is exhausted.

Otherwise, the Bush Administration wouldn't be able to get away with cutting the Veteran's Affairs Administration's budget during what they call a time of war. Otherwise, the unemployment among soldiers under twenty-five years old returned from the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn't be hovering around fifteen percent. Otherwise, the Pentagon wouldn't have instructed its doctors to stop recognizing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a mental illness, and to start diagnosing those that have it with mental illnesses that are considered pre-existing conditions that disqualify them for services. Otherwise, soldiers suffering from PTSD, in the throes of alcoholism and despair wouldn't threaten suicide, go to the VA for help, be told that they need to wait until the 28 soldiers ahead of them on the waiting list have been admitted to the eight-bed facility, and then go home and paint their brains across the bedroom wall using their shotgun as the brush and their skull as the palette.

We ask our soldiers to risk death and dismemberment, and yet we are unwilling to ensure that they are cared for once they return. Health care, therapy, suicide prevention, job training and re-entry, and temporary housing seem to be the least that we could do. All they require is a little time, money, and dedication. And yet so little is available.

Americans have forgotten what it is to sacrifice. The unparalleled wealth of our society allows us to fuel a war effort without appreciable impact to our personal enjoyment of luxuries. Unlike my grandmother, I don’t have to recycle cans and tires and make do without certain foods so that the soldiers can have them. Worse, we’ve forgotten what it is to be citizen-soldiers, to share the horrors of war.

Many war-boosters make much ado about the fact that deaths from this war are astonishingly low. We’ve lost fewer Americans in five and a half years than at the Normandy landings. Thanks to medical technology and advances in treatment, instead of dying wounded veterans can look forward to a life full of challenges, pain, and discrimination. They now survive wounds their parents’ and grandparents’ generations would have thought insurmountable. But that other miracle of modernity, mass media, isn’t sharing those costs with the populace. Hawks can avoid the consequences of their decisions and support because a relative few will bear them out of sight and out of mind.

George Washington, during his farewell address after voluntarily choosing not to run for president again, warned the nation against the danger of maintaining standing armies. This is a delicate line to tread. Armies want to be volunteer, a career choice. This allows them to be far more professional than militia. But standing armies allow us to marginalize the costs of war. Many choose to take Washington’s admonishment as a warning against brewing tyranny, a lesson brought into stark focus by the political machinations necessary to thwart Alexander Hamilton’s dreams of using the Army to become an imperial power (an important but obscure moment in our history that is unfortunately relegated to trivia). But Washington’s speech crystallizes another truth: If we do not share in the burdens and perils of maintaining freedom, we take them for granted.

This doesn’t mean that we all need to get up and fight, especially during a war not in the public interest. But the well-being of those who do fight at our leaders’ behest is a matter of public, communal responsibility. We live in a republic. If we do not hold our representatives responsible for ensuring the care of those wounded, then that moral failing becomes our moral failing. We are a republic. Our leaders are beholden to us. Remind them of that.

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