By Bill Boyarsky
Remember the war, the one in Afghanistan? The recent Memorial Day weekend forced the news media to briefly focus on it. But otherwise the war and its heavy toll have faded from our national consciousness, leaving President Barack Obama free to continue the combat without much pressure to get out.
Just how forgotten the war has become is revealed in the latest news coverage report of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The project gives its findings in a nonjudgmental, just-the-facts manner, no how maddening they are. The Afghanistan War didn’t make the top five stories covered in newspapers, online or on cable and network television for the period May 16-May 22.
I wish Pew would go a step farther in these monthly reports. I’d like a few paragraphs on the harm being done to the United States by the longest war in our history, both to the country as a whole and to the women and men fighting it.
The war costs grow, adding to a national deficit estimated at $1.5 trillion this year. The website Cost of War reported that the Afghanistan War has cost $418 billion. Iraq’s $781 billion brings the figure for war costs to $1.2 trillion for a nation that won’t pay for decent health care for all, is firing teachers and has become resigned to a 9 percent unemployment rate.
For veterans of the two wars, the toll includes unemployment, serious physical injury, mental illness and suicide.
The New York Times reported that the unemployment rate for veterans who joined after Sept. 11, 2001, was 10.9 percent in April, almost two percentage points above the national rate. “The problem is particularly severe among young male veterans, ages 18 to 24, for whom the unemployment rate is nearly 27 percent,” the Times said.
The situation is worse for veterans who are mentally or physically disabled. A RAND Corp. study in 2008 found that roughly 300,000 servicemen and servicewomen back from Iraq and Afghanistan—nearly 20 percent of the number who served there—reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression. About 19 percent said they suffered from possible traumatic brain injury while overseas.
After dispatching Americans to war, the federal government is supposed to take care of the sick and wounded through its Department of Veterans Affairs.
Criticism of the VA has been well publicized over the years. Early in May, a federal appellate court delivered a savage critique of VA care of those with psychological ailments. The court ordered a major VA reform.
In his majority opinion, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave an eloquent and disturbing summation of neglect of all vets, a situation made worse by poor policy and practices regarding those injured psychologically and physically in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
“On an average day, eighteen veterans of our nation’s armed forces take their own lives,” Reinhardt wrote. “Of those, roughly one quarter are enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system. Among all veterans enrolled in the VA system, an additional 1,000 attempt suicide each month.”
He said, “Veterans who return home from the war suffering from psychological maladies are entitled by law to disability benefits to sustain themselves and their families as they regain their health. Yet it takes more than four years for a veteran to fully adjudicate a claim for benefits.”
Reinhardt noted that the “influx of injured troops returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan has placed an unprecedented strain on the VA. … For some veterans, most notably those suffering from combat-derived mental illnesses such as PTSD, these delays may make the difference between life and death.”
“… The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough,” he declared. “No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligation.”
When historians look back upon this time, they may wonder why the nation was not enraged by the many years spent on two useless wars. Perhaps as they dig through the remains of our era, they will stumble upon what professor Andrew J. Bacevich, who teaches history and international relations at Boston University, wrote in The Daily Beast two days before this year’s Memorial Day:
“Americans once believed war to be a great evil. Whenever possible, war was to be avoided. When circumstances made war unavoidable, Americans wanted peace swiftly restored.
“Present-day Americans, few of them directly affected by events in Iraq and Afghanistan, find war tolerable. They accept it. Since 9/11 war has become normalcy. Peace has become an entirely theoretical construct. A report of G.I.s getting shot at, maimed or killed is no longer something the average American gets exercised about. ...”
President Obama, meanwhile, has pledged to begin withdrawal of American troops in July. But he’s vague about the pace of the withdrawal. In fact, he can’t or won’t clearly explain why we are there, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader. Al-Qaida operates from many places, including in the territory of our so-called ally Pakistan, where bin Laden was found. And Afghanistan may be starting negotiations with elements of the Taliban. The stated reason for getting into this war was to wipe out al-Qaida and its Taliban allies. So, why are we still in Afghanistan, fighting a voluntary war with no time limit?
Most House Democrats and a few Republicans wanted an answer to that question when they asked Obama to accelerate the withdrawal. But they lost 204-215 in a vote that attracted minimal attention.
This leaves Obama plenty of room to continue the war that America has forgotten, no matter how terrible its cost.
U.S. soldiers arrive at an Afghan National Police checkpoint in Helmand province in January 2010.