The hidden cost of war

Driving through Susanville this afternoon, I was struck by the banners commemorating resident military members and their families. They were simple enough—white banners each with a name, a portrait of the person in uniform, a few stars for dignified decoration, a commemorative tribute. Strapped to the streetlights lining main street, each banner spoke eloquently of the community’s dedication to remembering its service and sacrifice to the military.

I registered the disturbing thought that this gesture seemed quaint, like a throwback to a tradition of the past. That’s because, in many ways, it is. The banners, sponsored and designed by the Susanville chapter of Blue Star Moms, are modeled after the Blue Star Banners given to families with members serving in WWI and WWII to display. But our military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan has, from the start, deliberately distracted the public from having to face up to the cost of war in terms of lives damaged or lost. The Bush administration explicitly forbade photographs of caskets returning from the fields of battle. And though Obama has made a point of overturning this practice, we as a public have become so accustomed to ignoring the war dead that it would take a far more concerted effort than what Obama has done to fix our attention on this point.

I am a pacifist, opposed to any war on principle and our current wars for a host of other reasons. But I believe that those who serve their country deserve honor and praise for their service and sacrifice. And their families deserve far more support than we currently provide. Our all-volunteer military tends to draw sons and daughters of poverty into its ranks—often providing the only viable option to young people in this crappy economy. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the American population is fighting in our current wars, compared to 9 percent who joined the forces during World War II. Such low numbers are possible in large part because our military activity has been privatized to an unprecedented degree—we contract out large chunks of warmongering to private companies like the former Blackwater firm. While this practice allows us to continue fighting without a draft, it carries enormous risks of its own, as the scandals surrounding Blackwater, Abu Ghraib and dozens of lesser-known examples amply illustrate. Companies that contract military operations are not bound to follow the same laws or rules of engagement as American military officers and soldiers are, oftentimes leading to problems both farcical and horrific, besmirching what’s left of American integrity in the process.

But more importantly, as Jon Meacham argues in Newsweek, “the failure to commemorate the war dead … has a particularly corrosive effect on the country, for once we forget the price of combat, it becomes all too easy to allow others—and other people’s children—to pay it.” It wasn’t always this way—Americans honored their fallen far more publicly in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. But people who pay attention to the body count and wounded lives start to pose tough questions to those in charge of dispatching our young to battle—as we learned during Vietnam. It is so much easier to keep the civilian population from questioning—or protesting—the war, when there is no draft, no widespread public remembrance of the dead or celebration of the survivors.

It takes the grassroots Blue Star Moms to bring back the old tradition, offering us a dignified reminder of the costs our foreign policy exacts every day.