The Memorial Day weekend was marked by the 3,000th coalition-forces death in Afghanistan, the vast majority American, in what has become our longest war.
Most of the casualties there have not been incurred in traditional battles, but as the result of snipings, detonating devices, or hit-and-run engagements. Still, the dead and wounded are every bit as real as those at Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Okinawa, the Chosin Reservoir, or Hue. They bring to mind, of course, the ever-present questions about where, why, and how we go to war.
A new book, Those Who Have Borne the Battle by James Wright, a former Marine and Dartmouth College president, was released a few days ahead of the weekend. It explores these questions including, importantly, the changing nature
of our armed forces.
Our armed forces, as Wright points out, were most often mixes of volunteers and conscripts until President Richard Nixon ended the draft in 1973 to quell Vietnam War dissent. Since that time service has been done entirely by volunteers who, disproportionately, have been poorer, less educated, and less Caucasian than the overall American population.
An occasional upper-income or highly-educated volunteer will sign up for enlisted service, usually out of patriotism. The vast majority of officers, of course, have remained college-educated, their core made up of graduates of the U.S. mlitary academies. Many more volunteers enlist for the educational opportunities provided, both in the service and afterward.
Though there are many problems with our armed forces, overall they offer more opportunity for upward mobility and
have less discrimination than most other American institutions. Because of the absence of a draft, however, they have become increasingly separated from the rest of society. The percentage of Americans with military experience has consistently dwindled since the end of the Vietnam War — even with the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions. Many families have no members with mlitary experience and, in fact, do not know anyone who has done military service.
This may be one reason why the Afghan intervention, fought by professionals and volunteers, has not generated the kind of public opposition that existed during Vietnam. The people serving are not protesting and those not serving do not feel directly connected to the war.
One thing has changed for the better, however, since Vietnam, when veterans often returned to a hostile home front, accused of atrocities in which a huge majority had no part. Now they again are being honored. Their medical after-care has been raised to high visibility and there are many volunteer support groups serving returned troopers. Wright, the author of the new book, was moved to write it, he says, after visits to military hospitals.
This shift was clear at the annual community parade I attended in my old hometown of Bellingham on Saturday. Many groups and organizations were represented in the parade, which was heavily attended on the clear, sunny day. The greatest applause by far though came for marchers holding life-sized photographs of Washington state kids killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The least applause, significantly, came for elected officials and political candidates).
I've written before of the misjudgements that led us into wars and interventions in places where no vital American interests were at stake. World War II, in fact, is the only war dating back to the end of the 19th century in which the United States was not involved because of outright blunders or miscalculations by our national leaders.
Now, in 2012, there remains no valid reason for our continuing involvement in Afghanistan or, for that matter, for our recent intervention in a Libyan civil war which has been followed by chaos and carnage in that country. Iraq was clearly a mistake, based on the belief that Saddam Hussein had ongoing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs which had, as a matter of fact, been discontinued years before.
The best arguments against such mistakes are the military cemeteries which drew visitors over the weekend. I've always been most moved by visits to the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Lincoln's sad, wise face tells the story of our Civil War almost by itself. The nearby Vietnam memorial lists the name of each of the 58,000 Americans killed in that war — all lost because of the stupidity and arrogance of leaders who mistook the conflict there for a must-fight part of the Cold War. Many more returned home maimed or damaged. Family members also were casualties.
I can recall Vice President Humphrey, in Saigon in 1967, as he declared his views on the Vietnam War: "I'll be damned," he said, "if I'll be part of sending any more American kids to die for these corrupt bastards." Too bad, I thought at the time, that other policymakers had not thought that way before we began our Vietnam involvement and that it had taken Humphrey three years to make that declaration. (It would not be until 1975 until we finally bugged out of Vietnam in an embarrassing, chaotic rush).
Should a military draft be reinstituted, so as to expose more Americans to military service? Though it sounds good in concept, various studies have shown that, at current force levels, a draft is not only unneeded but would be quite expensive.
Far more important, it seems to me, would be unyielding congressional insistence that no overseas military action be authorized without a declaration of war or, at a minimum, invocation of the War Powers Act. Recent presidents, who have committed us without such authorization, should not be allowed to get away with it.
Questions for a president considering war: Who are we supporting? For what purpose? Does it truly affect the vital interests of the United States? Is it important enough to send my own son or daughter to fight and perhaps die there? Perhaps there will be a Memorial Day not too many years ahead when we are not wasting lives in a place that does not truly matter to us.