By Bob Herbert
The singer Edwin Starr, who died in 2003, had a big hit in 1970 called “War” in which he asked again and again: “War, what is it good for?”
The U.S. economy is in free fall, the banking system is in a state of complete collapse and Americans all across the country are downsizing their standards of living. The nation as we’ve known it is fading before our very eyes, but we’re still pouring billions of dollars into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with missions we are still unable to define.
Even as the U.S. begins plans to reduce troop commitments in Iraq, it is sending thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan. The strategic purpose of this escalation, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged, is not at all clear.
In response to a question on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mr. Gates said:
“We’re talking to the Europeans, to our allies; we’re bringing in an awful lot of people to get different points of view as we go through this review of what our strategy ought to be. And I often get asked, ‘Well, how long will those 17,000 [additional troops] be there? Will more go in?’ All that depends on the outcome of this strategy review that I hope will be done in a few weeks.”
We invaded Afghanistan more than seven years ago. We have not broken the back of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. We have not captured or killed Osama bin Laden. We don’t even have an escalation strategy, much less an exit strategy. An honest assessment of the situation, taking into account the woefully corrupt and ineffective Afghan government led by the hapless Hamid Karzai, would lead inexorably to such terms as fiasco and quagmire.
Instead of cutting our losses, we appear to be doubling down.
As for Iraq, President Obama announced last week that substantial troop withdrawals will take place over the next year and a half and that U.S. combat operations would cease by the end of August 2010. But, he said, a large contingent of American troops, perhaps as many as 50,000, would still remain in Iraq for a “period of transition.”
That’s a large number of troops, and the cost of keeping them there will be huge. Moreover, I was struck by the following comment from the president: “There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments, but our enemies should be left with no doubt. This plan gives our military the forces and flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners and to succeed.”
In short, we’re committed to these two conflicts for a good while yet, and there is nothing like an etched-in-stone plan for concluding them. I can easily imagine a scenario in which Afghanistan and Iraq both heat up and the U.S., caught in an extended economic disaster at home, undermines its fragile recovery efforts in the same way that societies have undermined themselves since the dawn of time — with endless warfare.
We’ve already paid a fearful price for these wars. In addition to the many thousands of service members who have been killed or suffered obvious disabling injuries, a study by the RAND Corporation found that some 300,000 are currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and that 320,000 have most likely experienced a traumatic brain injury.
Time magazine has reported that “for the first time in history, a sizable and growing number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Suicides among soldiers rose in 2008 for the fourth consecutive year, largely because of the stress of combat deployments. It’s believed that 128 soldiers took their own lives last year.
Much of the country can work itself up to a high pitch of outrage because a banker or an automobile executive flies on a private jet. But we’ll send young men and women by the thousands off to repeated excursions through the hell of combat — three tours, four tours or more — without raising so much as a peep of protest.
Lyndon Johnson, despite a booming economy, lost his Great Society to the Vietnam War. He knew what he was risking. He would later tell Doris Kearns Goodwin, “If I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs… All my dreams…”
The United States is on its knees economically. As President Obama fights for his myriad domestic programs and his dream of an economic recovery, he might benefit from a look over his shoulder at the link between Vietnam and the still-smoldering ruins of Johnson’s presidency.