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Wars Went MIA From Midterm Debates

Jon Dillingham
Contributor
Jon Dillingham worked as a journalist in Ho Chi Minh City and now teaches free English classes at La Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City’s Go Vap District. Dillingham has worked for many English publications in…
Jon Dillingham

Despite the exit of some U.S. troops from Iraq — 50,000 soldiers still remain, along with an untold number of mercenaries, permanent bases and no doubt a small CIA army — the war there and in Afghanistan is still vibrant. Nations we are not even at war with, such as Pakistan and Yemen, have become targets, and the death toll in Afghanistan is rising faster than ever. But you certainly wouldn’t know it from the public debate that led up to the Nov. 2 midterm elections.

Only a tiny handful of articles and newscasts about the elections noted there were wars going on at all, and even those stories mentioned them only in pointing out that the wars had not been a large issue in the campaigns. Politicians running for office were not challenged to comment on either Iraq or Afghanistan (or Pakistan and Yemen) in press conferences and debates. It was as if understanding the nation’s war efforts was not part of a legislator’s job description.

There are obvious reasons politicians don’t want to talk about the wars. The Republicans would rather not bring up an issue on which they are aligned with President Barack Obama, and the Democrats don’t want the rest of us to remember that the invasion of Iraq was a bipartisan initiative. The politicians also don’t want us to be reminded that the Afghanistan project is not going well.

They don’t want us to know how much we’re killing and dying over there, and how brutally we’re doing it. They would also prefer not to discuss the fact that many of those we kill over there never wished America harm. They would rather have us ignore the fact that violent opposition is a legitimate response to occupation. They also don’t want to tell us that they know our tax dollars are being funneled to the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and, via our donations to Pakistani security forces, even went to the terrorists who killed hundreds in Mumbai.

Even the wars’ beginnings, still lauded as righteous by many, can’t be discussed. Those running for public office can’t talk about the lack of usable evidence against Osama bin Laden, nor would they enjoy discussing the fact that the Taliban was rebuffed by the United States in its offer to hand bin Laden over in exchange for said evidence, making the subsequent bombing and invasion patently illegal. They don’t want us to discuss the hypocrisy of a nation with weapons of mass destruction invading another nation, Iraq, for supposedly having weapons of mass destruction, or the fact that the invasion would have been far costlier had the Iraqis actually been in possession of those weapons. Where would those hypothetical weapons have been aimed at that point? Israel? Possibly they would have been passed to Hezbollah, Hamas or Syria.

But we in the press often do Washington’s bidding: The politicians don’t talk about these things, so neither do we. We’ve rendered ourselves, and this entire exercise in democracy, null and void. We may prattle on about health care reform or human rights in China, but if the press and the public don’t push back against America’s crimes of aggression and the mass killing of innocents, then we’re nothing more than obscene jingoists.

Our silence, that of the people and the press, has quickened our country’s slide into what military historian Andrew Bacevich calls “permanent war.” The American people and the press are the only defense against the mass slaughter of those who cannot defend themselves, and we are the only ones who can save our troops. Anything less than direct opposition to these imperial invasions makes us accomplices: In our silence, we are complicit in crimes against humanity.

But we don’t seem to care. The wars aren’t an issue because we don’t make them so. The Pentagon Papers helped foment anti-war sentiment, but WikiLeaks’ release of 600,000 pages detailing years of slaughter, rape and abuse? Nothing. Amy Goodman summarized the evil to be found in those documents: Searching the archive on the WikiLeaks website, she found that “words like ‘rape,’ ‘murder,’ ‘execution,’ ‘kidnapping’ and ‘decapitation’ return anywhere from hundreds to thousands of reports. …” This is what our tax dollars are paying for and what the acquiescence of our press supports. War crimes.

Americans struggling with hard financial times may use the depressed economy as an excuse not to care about the wars. But can economic stability at home be considered as important as the right to human life abroad?

Our reverential platitudes like “Support the troops” and “God bless the troops” are little more than mumbo jumbo when stacked up against our actions. If we cared about the troops, we would bring them home. We don’t care about them, because they’re not us. Less than 1 percent of the country serves in the military. If we had a compulsory draft, people would be out in the streets hurling bricks through the windows of the Capitol. If a draft was fair and included the sons and daughters of our leaders, we wouldn’t have these wars in the first place.

In his book “Washington Rules: America’s Path of Permanent War,” Bacevich cautions against “the evisceration of civic culture that results when a small praetorian guard shoulders the burden of waging perpetual war, while the great majority of citizens purport to revere its members, even as they ignore or profit from their service.”

Without a real connection to war, we disengage from the issue; our debate is either nonexistent or impotent. We see nothing wrong with the ever-expanding military budget amid national financial catastrophe, nothing wrong with re-electing politicians who are unwilling to slow the rapid gains in military spending or the strengthening of bonds between the weapons industry, Washington and Wall Street’s captains of industry.

Even the war-fighters are removed from battle, killing families in droves via drones they control with the detachment of video-game addicts. At the same time, whole articles in our newspapers are dedicated to a lively debate about the use of federal funds and state spending. Politicians running for office give hour-long speeches on the issue. But the media fail to point out that none of these candidates mention the salient fact that our most expensive and wasteful expenditure is, by far, the military. The attack budget (it is not a defense budget) for the wars has eaten up more than $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. Maintaining the entirety of our global war machine costs more than that amount annually.

Some Americans may even think “the war” in Iraq is over, given Obama’s declaration that major combat operations have closed. Bacevich writes of this deception: “Instead of declaring victory, the president simply urged Americans to turn the page. With remarkable alacrity, most of us seem to have complied.”

Even the few mainstream journalists who thought to question the absence of the war from the election’s debate have missed the mark.

The most notable of such misses is Tom Brokaw’s Op-Ed article in The New York Times, a cruel snub for those whose lives have been consumed by the wars. Brokaw talks about “5,000 dead” as if there had not been hundreds of thousands, millions by some estimates, of Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis killed. For these dead human beings and their survivors, there is no “turning the page.” Those still alive in these countries look the brutal war machine in its teeth each day. There is no escape from its talons, which seize them as they walk to school, as they till their fields, as they cook meals in their homes. War may be permanent and distant for us, but for them it is perpetual and personal.

It’s not complicated, but it’s horrifying. If we stop talking about the wars, the killing will never end. We won’t see it or hear it, but it will continue. And it will be done in our names.

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