Nineteen years ago, the administration of George W. Bush responded to the 9/11 attacks by invading Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. And, yes, you won't be shocked to learn that the Taliban is stronger now than at any time since that moment. Though U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan has been shrinking, thanks to the president who swore he would end America's forever wars but didn't, it still remains a factor there as does American air power (and Joe Biden has favored keeping U.S. counterterrorism forces in that country).
Of course, it's now more than 17 years since the Bush administration invaded Iraq, something its top officials were intent on doing from the early moments after 9/11, even though their nemesis Saddam Hussein had nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda. As Donald Trump prepares to depart the White House in a storm of accusations of election fraud, he'll leave several thousand U.S. soldiers in Iraq, too. And there are 700 more in Somalia, where the U.S. has been fighting on and off for 27 years, many of whom may be withdrawn before the new administration takes over (though not the local CIA contingent, one of whom died there recently). And the list just keeps on going, including those 900 American soldiers left in Syria, even though the president's generals falsely promised to withdraw 700 of them (a move criticized by Joe Biden).
Never in history, it might be said, has a great power at the height of its military strength been quite so unable to impress its will on the countries and peoples it targeted.
And yet, sooner or later, withdrawn or not, American troops do come home, often in the deepest sort of trouble. Once here, they are eternally "thanked" and then generally forgotten, though not by TomDispatch regular, co-founder of Brown University's Costs of War Project, and military spouse Andrea Mazzarino who reminds us today that, while U.S. taxpayer dollars flow in a profligate fashion into the Pentagon and the major arms makers in this country, America's soldiers are essentially left in the lurch. Our forever wars, in other words, are a matter of forever funding when it comes to those at the top and underfunding when it comes to those who "volunteer" to fight them. Tom
Ready or Not, Here They Come
A Military Spouse's Perspective on Bringing the Troops Home from Afghanistan and Iraq
By Andrea Mazzarino
By the end of this year, the White House will reportedly have finally brought home a third of the 7,500 troops still stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq (against the advice of President Trump's own military leaders). While there have been stories galore about the global security implications of this plan, there has been almost no discussion at all about where those 2,700 or so troops who have served in this country's endless wars will settle once their feet touch U.S. soil (assuming, that is, that they aren't just moved to less controversial garrisons elsewhere in the Greater Middle East), no less who's likely to provide them with badly needed financial, logistical, and emotional support as they age.
When it comes to honoring active-duty troops and veterans of this country's forever wars, we Americans have proven big on symbolic gestures, but small on action. Former First Lady Michelle Obama's organization, Joining Forces, was a short-lived but notable exception: its advocacy and awareness-raising led dozens of companies to commit to hiring more veterans. Unfortunately, those efforts proved limited in scope and didn't last long.
Zoom out to the rest of America and you'll find yellow-ribbon bumper stickers on gas-guzzling SUVs galore; tons of "support our troops" Facebook memes on both Veterans Day and Memorial Day regularly featuring (at least before the pandemic struck big time) young, attractive heterosexual families hugging at reunions; and there is invariably a chorus of "thank you for your service" when a veteran or active-duty soldier appears in public.
In practical terms, though, this adds up to nothing. Bumper stickers don't watch soldiers' kids while they're gone, nor do they transport those troops to competent, affordable specialists to meet their health and vocational needs when they return from battle. Memes don't power vets through decades of rehabilitation from traumatic brain injuries, limbs blown off by homemade explosives, depression, anxiety, and grief for comrades lost.
I'm the spouse of a U.S. naval officer. My husband has served on two different submarines and in three military policymaking positions over the course of our decade together. We've had to move around the country four times (an exceedingly modest number compared with most military families we know). We have dual incomes, as well as extended family and friends with the means to support us with care for our two young children and help us with the extra expenses when that uprooting moment arrives every two or three years. We have self-advocacy skills and the resources necessary to find the best possible health providers to help us weather the strain that goes with the relentless pace of post-9/11 military life.
And yet I feel I can speak for other military families who have so much less for one reason: I've dedicated much of my career to research and advocacy on behalf of people affected by the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I've focused my attention, in particular, on the vast loss of life, both abroad and at home, caused by those wars, on decimated and depleted healthcare systems (including our own), and on the burdens borne by the families of soldiers who have to struggle to deal with the needs of those who return.
Troops from our current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa are, in certain ways, unique compared to earlier generations of American military personnel. More than half of them have deployed more than once to those battle zones -- often numerous times. Over a million of them now have disability claims with the Veterans Affairs Department and far more disabled veterans than in the past have chronic injuries and illnesses that they will live with, not die from. Among troops like my spouse who, as a naval officer, has never deployed to Iraqi or Afghan soil, days have grown longer and more stressful due to a distinctly overstretched military that often lacks the up-to-date equipment to work safely.
And mind you, the costs of caring for the soldiers who have been deployed in our never-ending wars won't peak for another 30 to 40 years, as they age, and the government isn't faintly ready to meet the expenses that will be involved.
And mind you, the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs are even less prepared to care for the families of their troops and veterans, those most likely to be tasked with their round-the-clock care.
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