Today's easy riddle: what will cost more, last longer, and accomplish less than our troop-heavy, anachronistic, perpetual overseas occupations? Nothing, nada, rien -- certainly not annual deficits, Bush tax cuts, or formal defense budgets. Put aside human suffering and unbelievable dislocation: we've all shouldered a four trillion dollar price tag on two failed wars, plus the double whammy that both Iraq and Afghanistan remain unstable havens for mayhem. Is any fiscal cliff that might happen worse than two indeterminate rat holes that have happened?
When outcomes are set against costs, would not every payoff-to-price ratio indict our Asian land wars as absurd, if not obscene, devoid of socially-redeeming value? You'd think by now anti-war rage would defy the yet-to-be-rejected, neo-con mindset of shoot-first, ask-questions-later belligerence. Widely perceived as continuing crusades against Muslim populations, these wars send "messages to evil-doers" all right, but they only wither our prestige, fuel a generation of anti-American fury and taint our national soul.
What von Clausewitz justified as an "extension of politics by other means" is now a crude bludgeon that should be openly condemned, then dumped on the garbage heap. Right, next to Birtherism, creationism, homophobia, taxation hysteria (by hawks!), Biblical literalism, and the hoax of climate change. Yet these wars are treated like invisible elephants, AWOL across two full years of a three-ring election circus. Where's the Constitutional amendment chatter not against overdrawn budgets nor abortions but indefensible wars? These days, I'd take a modest New Year's resolution from any major official: how about one year without invasions?
Bomb, Occupy, Sit Like Ducks
What war of choice (that is, all of them) since Vietnam doesn't felt creepy within months of the first wave? After bombing some unfortified nation into submission, we then sit tight, inviting ambushes as conditions disintegrate. Is that a plan or insanity? The Iraq war eviscerated any old war cries of "no guts, no glory:" for without heroism, losing your guts or legs becomes a nightmarish joke, with a delayed stinger that impoverishes the next generation. All that John Wayne soldiering withers when there's no glory or spoils, vindication or closure. A reincarnated Frank Capra, whose WWII film cheered on "Why we fight," must re-title, something like "Why war sucks" because no one wins anymore and the gross enterprise stinks.
Not so long ago, when gore and mayhem dissipated, survivors and sponsors on the winning side lined up for "spoils of war." Though wars always spoiled far more than they won, "spoils of war" is not without irony. Former payoffs spanned security from attack, exploitable land and resources, cheaper slaves, workers or wider marketplaces, golden trinkets or movable art treasures. Instead, exhausted taxpayers get empty returns, or worse, like "democracy and freedom" far away along with invasive Patriot Acts, with fewer rights at home. Forget about homecoming victory parades, let alone soaring rhetoric praising the moral superiority of the triumphant.
Withdrawal takes so long now few feel relief, only anguish that America has fallen so far. Why, we oldsters remember when "losers" actually "surrendered," in prehistoric times when wars had beginnings, middles, and ends, thus psychological closure. Today, war is hellish but unlike the disease-ridden trench warfare or jungle madness of world wars. Occupations simply grind on and on, reminiscent of H. L. Mencken's biting put-down of President Harding's oratory: "It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights."
Better to rename wars as "indeterminate, intervening clashes" that don't even end with "peace talks," for these too are obsolete. Yes, forget any truce as we endure the dogs of war "barking idiotically through endless nights." Yet the moral and political quandary from endorsing such expensive violence remains. How do leaders justify carnage against millions when noble "liberations" flatten nations, without benefits, to them or us? Are not both Iraq and Afghanistan decimated, alongside our moral, diplomatic and financial stability? What positives assure grieving parents that entombed children "shall not have died in vain"? The era of defending wars on principle, as Lincoln did when promising a "new birth of freedom," is over, as Vietnam put the last nail in that coffin. Unheroic wars are about brutal, geo-political power, empire, and sending fouled up messages to would-be enemies who used them to attract more suicidal operatives.
When Big Lies Fail
Though W. dared justify Iraq in terms of "freedom and democracy," he was too insular, plaint or oblivious to realize this meme had lost all credibility, a sitting duck of a failed Big Lie that redounded against him. Marking a profound shift, we no longer expect to win wars, just batter enemies "over there" and sustain some fabricated status quo delusion. In one sense, wars of empire are about freedom, the arrogant capability to freely attack because we can. Who needs a "new birth of freedom" when Washington already has free global reign?
As our no-good, rotten wars grind away, few feel solace or relief, and who feels safer than before 9/11? Even as political theater, modern war flops big-time, bereft of payoffs. Compare the positives from WWII: we overcame the Depression, eased into desegregation of the military, set up the greatest socio-economic mobility plus wealth production in history. Indeed, post WWII provided the greatest good for the greatest number. No family did not benefit from new war technologies: the breakout of computer science, the advance of radar and sonar (advancing flight safety for all), jet and turbine engines, helicopters, missiles informing space exploration, antibiotics, medical and surgical breakthroughs, synthetic rubber, aerosol cans (bug spray) and, alas, nylon stockings. Payoffs galore, with dividends to this day going back eight decades.
Failed Wars, Failed Payoffs
Other than drone technology, and superior body and vehicle armor, where are any real civilian payoffs from over a decade of war? Any one, suggestions open? What did we gain from the treasure lost in Afghanistan, other than getting slammed firsthand, here is definitively the graveyard of empires -- plus blundering Asian land wars kill the invaders plus millions of others. How do we calculate the incalculable -- helping destroy a wide swath of a half-dozen regions, destroying education, medical delivery, infrastructure and whatever cultural cohesion there was? The inconvenient, if massive costs we pay are marginal compared to the bitter, permanent, unimaginable penalties locals have paid and will pay.
Add to this sturm und drang of war immense divisions at home. With major wars, not winning, nor gaining declared objectives, is losing, however you measure it. Certainly four trillion dollars, equalling years of heavy national deficits, would have funded our education, infrastructure, research or innovation, and programs to fight poverty and joblessness. All in all, the total in losses and squandered opportunity present the most distressing question. When do we begin to acknowledge, then grieve and begin to resolve Iraq and Afghanistan as not just our worst, avoidable foreign policy disasters but, next to the Civil War, our worst political, economic, and military misadventures? Denial keeps resolution at bay and that leads to further misery and hostility.
Finally, we fortunate non-veterans can sidestep having to press a V.A. system behind the times and the demands of often traumatized survivors. As one wounded soldier captured the double tragedy of an underfunded V.A., the result is "Delay, deny, until we die." Two-thirds of the 860,000 applicants for treatment, according to CNN, wait twice as long as the four month V.A. target goal: "On average, the V.A. said veterans wait more than eight months -- 256 days -- before their claim is resolved." Sounds like soldier abuse to me, adding insult to injury, and no metaphor intended. A fitting end to our worst national fiasco, and yet the final wound looms as deafening silence.