It’s interesting how some political ideas can persist for generations, even in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. We see this today with issues like global warming, racial prejudice and resistance to raising taxes on the rich. But the grandaddy of all persistent myths is the idea that war accomplishes anything.
The concept of war is a myth with such emotional power in political circles that it has persisted for centuries even in the face of the most gruesome and horrible proof that the premise is utterly false. War is vote-getting gold for politicians. People in society are universally frustrated and the opportunity to vicariously punch people they don’t like in the nose are votes to be mined by the crafty politician.
Wars ravage homelands, suck up precious national resources, butcher innocent civilians and combatants alike and lead to deep seated resentments that never seem to end. The historical record is abundantly clear, wars only beget more wars and leave incredible permanent scars on both “winners” and “losers” that are virtually impossible to heal and are passed on to subsequent generations. World War I led directly to World War II. People in the Middle East today are fighting with no real understanding why except that conflict is all they have ever known, and there are sufficient scars there to give everyone a grudge. Tribal conflicts in Africa have gone on for generations in some cases. Wars accomplish absolutely nothing that will not be undone by history.
On the personal side, only recently have we begun to appreciate the incredible price war exacts on the combatants. We have witnessed for years the broken souls from the war in Viet Nam, relegated to freeway underpasses and homeless shelters, trying to make sense of experiences that defy any sense at all.
The irrationality and barbarism of war breaks men’s souls. Today, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are joining Viet Nam war veterans who were forced into a realm of inhumanity that many cannot return from. This is the real cost of war that the military has successfully buried under parades and patriotic flag waving for centuries.
There is an extremely strong social stigma in the military against having any sort of emotional difficulty. Commanders dismiss mental health issues as a sign of weakness. And yet, the shame and guilt induced by killing in combat is uniquely scarring. Because we are paying more attention today, we are finding that psychosocial dysfunction is far worse than the military has ever disclosed. Many returning veterans suffer the debilitating effects of combat stress and over eighteen percent suffer from the pernicious and life long disabling effects of PTSD. Perhaps even more intriguing is why the lasting psychological consequences of causing destruction and perpetrating violence have been so singly and strikingly under-researched.
Facing his ninth deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, Army Staff Sgt. Jared Hagemann took his own life because as he said, “There was no way God would forgive me for what I had seen and done.” His widow reported that his fellow Army Rangers wouldn’t do anything to help him before he took his life. She said, “The people who should be worried about going to hell are the bastards who sent these soldiers over there for no good reason, and then refuse to provide the help they need when they come back.”
More U.S. soldiers and veterans have died from self-inflicted suicide than from combat wounds over the past two years. And as a special way of thanking those who served, Texas Republicans want to make it harder for young, homeless and traumatized Army veterans to vote.
The biggest problem is that the military, as it has been traditionally configured, is a sledgehammer. One can argue that some jobs require sledgehammers. There is no question, for example, that we needed one against Hitler and against North Korea, but after that, things start to get fuzzy. Sledgehammers aren’t worth much against guerrillas as we saw in Viet Nam and Afghanistan and terrorists as we have witnessed in Iraq.
I think it can be safely argued that even historically, many situations needed something other than the application of brute force. Many of the 18th century campaigns of colonization against native peoples were poorly served by “the big hammer.” The sword is the wrong instrument with which to win over hearts and minds. But as I said earlier, politicians like the sword because it is quick and gets lots of votes. Before the Iraq war, hawks like Dick Cheney boasted that the people of Iraq would treat us as conquering heroes. Truth is, they hate our guts for destroying their country. Life for the average Iraqi was better under Saddam Hussein than after our “liberation” and the introduction of Western democracy.
Today the greatest need both in Iraq and Afghanistan is for education. Additionally, there is a great need for doctors, hospitals, cell towers, reliable electricity, potable water, agricultural help, roads and bridges. These can only come under a secure umbrella, but an occupying army cannot provide that. Occupiers simply generate too much local animosity.
The nature of conflict has changed. The world has adapted to successfully confront armies built on Napoleon’s model, and it has demonstrated that the U.S military’s WWII organizational concept is frightfully outdated and enormously expensive. Today the U.S. Military maintains an enormous presence in Europe that was established to confront a cold war Soviet threat that no longer exists. Ironically, many former Soviet Bloc nations are now members of NATO! But the beat goes on.
Rather than a military, what we really need today is a protective force that can provide a security umbrella over an area while others go in to do the infrastructure and social work that situations today require. It does not spell an end to the military, but an end to the one we are familiar with. To fight adversity one needs patience and forgiveness, not an Abrams tank.