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Count the Quagmires

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Anybody who thought this was going to be an “easy war,” please raise your hand.


By now, the horror and scandal have exceeded the expectations of even the harshest critics of the invasion — mine, for instance — and I numbly play Count the Quagmires along with the rest of the media and general public. The latest one has burst into national awareness with a piercing “what’s next, for God’s sake?”


Afghanistan, Iraq, New Orleans. All of them bear the mark of W. And now, incredibly, we learn of a gulag of wounded and emotionally shattered returning veterans, as forgotten and abandoned as nursing home residents in the Crescent City. Support our troops!


But what we’re witnessing under George Bush is not what I would call incompetent leadership, any more than we witnessed, in an earlier, happier phase of his administration — the mission-accomplished phase — “leadership.” What we have instead is the guileless void of an administration that has not even tried to lead, but rather, from the get-go has concentrated on manipulating national symbols and traditions to give the American public the appearance of leadership.


The real Bush Doctrine was summed up a few years ago by an administration official, who told a reporter: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Yeah, OK. Some members of the media were skeptical, but I think a lot more of them were intimidated and felt the official scorn of being “reality-based,” so they continued to give obvious lies the same weight as the truth, no longer certain which mattered most.


Behind the illusion of leadership were a bunch of frat boys on spring break, doing whatever, liberated in their own minds from the consequences of their actions. They mainly played two games. One was called War, which resulted, of course, in two countries torn apart by unleashed genocidal hatreds. The other was called Government Doesn’t Matter, which most spectacularly gave us poor people trapped in a drowning city.


The current scandal at Walter Reed and beyond — and “scandal” is just a voyeur’s word for reality — is, I think, a combination of both games. The game of War results inescapably in death, injury and post-traumatic stress disorder for the participants, none of which is ever pretty. The game of Government Doesn’t Matter results in dysfunctional bureaucracy, which is what the injured vets came home to.


Since Team Bush never thought through even the most obvious consequences of what it was doing, and therefore made no plans to hide those consequences, we have, I think, a rare opportunity to look at the flaws in what we believe our interests are. How, for instance, could we have been manipulated so easily into a needless war? The “debate” beforehand took place in an eye blink, and no public institution felt compelled or empowered to counter the Bush administration’s reckless intentions. What happened to the reality-based community? How did it get suckered?


What we’re now reaping in almost daily headlines of this disaster are not Bush administration incompetencies but collective, systemic flaws in war itself — in this strategy of short-term advantage that causes so much long-term, needless suffering. The shabby medical care for vets, which is not new — which certainly predates the Bush administration — is suddenly so appalling to behold because we know the war that’s robbing our children of their limbs, their immune systems, their minds and sometimes their souls was unnecessary in the first place.


Let us remember this for next time. Let us remember that to be constantly prepared for war — to be a superpower — means that no cost is too great for the latest weapons system, but almost any cost is too great for the care of the wounded.


Let us also remember that the cost of war is incalculable. A year ago, economist Joseph Stiglitz, factoring in many of the hidden costs, estimated the Iraq war could end up depleting the national treasury of as much as $2 trillion. The revelations at Walter Reed and throughout the Veterans Administration tell us part of the reason why. Quality, lifelong care for brain-injured and psychologically maimed vets is enormously expensive. Because such care is never part of the original mandate to go to war, it will always be done on the cheap, leaving us, whenever we care to look, with the spectacle of sick and disabled vets fighting a losing battle for a pittance of respect and care from the VA.


We also have the tawdry spectacle of high-level buck-passing. War equals carte blanche for moral relativism, so whenever the generals or politicians are held morally responsible for the consequences of war, they are caught unprepared and give us the shrug, the blank stare, the evasive harrumph: “We had some NCOs who weren’t doing their job, period,” former Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey said of the Walter Reed fiasco before he was canned last week.


Raise your hand if you think Bush’s presidency has been tainted by incompetent NCOs.


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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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