Perhaps the strangest thing about America's "forever wars" is how little obvious impact they've had here. A country an imperial power, in fact, that liked to think of itself as the planet's last or "lone" superpower goes to war for so long (and with so little evident result) that even "the longest war" no longer fits as a title. After 19 1/4 years, Afghanistan, where it all began, has truly become a forever war. If you're living in that country, where the violence is never-ending, that's undoubtedly a key part of your everyday reality. Living here, however, you can forget that such wars are even still underway. Yes, America's conflicts are covered by the media in at least a modest fashion most of the time; and sometimes their impact is indeed felt here, however indirectly, as in the militarization of this country's police, equipped by the Pentagon in these years with weaponry and gear sometimes directly off America's distant battlefields; and yes, trillions of your tax dollars, which could have gone so usefully elsewhere (think about this country's long collapsing infrastructure) have disappeared down the gullet of distant wars. Still, most of the time, it's easy enough for most Americans who, in a draft-less world, have no obligation to deal with the U.S. military or our wars, to pretend that none of it is going on.
In the recent combative election campaign, were those wars even an issue? Barely. And yet what could, or at least should, be more striking than a country, not long ago considered the leading power on the planet, that simply can't stop fighting in distant lands in a wildly unsuccessful fashion? As it happens, of course, the "costs" of those wars have indeed come home, just not in ways that most Americans have paid much attention to. As TomDispatch regular and co-founder of Brown University's Costs of War Project Andrea Mazzarino makes clear today, in fact, the indirect damage of those wars to Americans and to the fabric of this society is far higher than we care to imagine. Tom
The Massive and Unseen Costs of America's Post-9/11 Wars at Home and Abroad
"I got out of the Marines and within a few years, 15 of my buddies had killed themselves," one veteran rifleman who served two tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2011 said to me recently. "One minute they belonged and the next, they were out, and they couldn't fit in. They had nowhere to work, no one who related to them. And they had these PTSD symptoms that made them react in ways other Americans didn't."
This veteran's remark may seem striking to many Americans who watched this country's post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere unfold in an early display of pyrotechnic air raids and lines of troops and tanks moving through desert landscapes, and then essentially stopped paying attention. As a co-founder of Brown University's Costs of War Project, as well as a military spouse who has written about and lived in a reasonably up-close-and-personal way through the costs of almost two decades of war in the Greater Middle East and Africa, my Marine acquaintance's comments didn't surprise me.
Quite the opposite. In the sort of bitter terms I'm used to, they only confirmed what I already knew: that most of war's suffering doesn't happen in the moment of combat amid the bullets, bombs, and ever-more-sophisticated IEDs on America's foreign battlefields. Most of it, whether for soldiers or civilians, happens indirectly, thanks to the way war destroys people's minds, its wear and tear on their bodies, and what it does to the delicate systems that uphold society's functioning like hospitals, roads, schools, and most of all, families and communities that must survive amid so much loss.
Combat Deaths: The Tip of the Iceberg
A major task of the Costs of War Project has been to document the death toll among uniformed American troops from our post-9/11 wars, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. Compared to the 400,000 American deaths (and still climbing) from Covid-19 in less than a year, the approximately 7,000 American military deaths from those wars over almost two decades seem, if anything, small indeed (though, of course, that total doesn't include thousands of military contractors who also fought and died on the American side). Even for me, as an activist and also a psychotherapist who bears witness to human suffering on a fairly regular basis, it's easy enough to grow desensitized to the words "more than 7,000," since my life hasn't been threatened by combat daily.
Indeed, 7,000 is a small number compared not just to Covid-19 deaths here but to the 335,000-plus deaths of civilians in our war zones since 2001. It doesn't even measure up to the 110,000 (and counting) Iraqi, Afghan, and other allied soldiers and police killed in our wars. However, 7,000 isn't so small when you think about what the loss of one life in combat means to the larger circle of people in that person's community.
To focus only on the numbers of American combat deaths ignores two key issues. First, every single combat death in Iraq and Afghanistan has ripple effects here at home. As the wife of a submarine officer who has completed four sea tours and who, as a Pentagon staffer, has had to deal with war's carnage in detail, I've been intimately involved in numerous communities grieving over military deaths and sustaining wounds years after the bodies have been buried. Parents, spouses, children, siblings, and friends of soldiers who have been killed in action live with survivor's guilt, depression, anxiety, and sometimes addiction to alcohol or drugs.
Families, many with young children, struggle to pay the rent, purchase food, or cover healthcare premiums and copays after losing the person who was often the sole source of family income. Communities have lost workers, volunteers, and neighbors at a time of mass illness and unrest just when we need those who can sustain intense pressure, problem solve, and work across class, party, and racial lines - in other words, our soldiers. (And yes, while the storming of the Capitol earlier this month included military veterans, I have no doubt that the majority of U.S. troops and veterans would prefer to be shot before getting involved in such a nightmare.)
Second, as the testimony of the former Marine I interviewed suggests, many people suffer and die long after the battles they fought in are over. Social scientists still know very little about the magnitude of deaths because of but not in war's battles. Still, a 2008 study by the Geneva Declaration Secretariat estimated that indirect deaths from war are at least four times as high as deaths sustained in combat.
At the Costs of War Project, we've started to examine the effects of war on human health and mortality, particularly in America's war zones. There, people die in childbirth because hospitals or clinics have been destroyed. They die because there are no longer the doctors or the necessary equipment to detect cancer early enough or even more common problems like infections. They die because roads have been bombed or are unsafe to travel on. They die from malnutrition because farms, factories, and the infrastructure to transport food have all been reduced to rubble. They die because the only things available and affordable to anesthetize them from emotional and physical pain may be opioids, alcohol, or other dangerous substances. They die because the healthcare workers who might have treated them for, or immunized them against, once obsolete illnesses like polio have been intimidated from doing their work. And of course, as is evident from our own skyrocketing military suicide rates, they die by their own hands.
It's very hard to count up such deaths, but as a therapist who works with U.S. military families and people who have emigrated from dozens of often war-torn countries around the world, the mechanisms by which war creates indirect death seem all too clear to me: you find that, in the post-war moment, you can't sleep, let alone get through your day, without debris on the highway, a strange look from someone, or an unexpected loud noise outside sparking terror.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).