Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Shame on Us


We Americans live in two worlds. Here at home, we are only dimly aware that a war is going on. Yet half a world away in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2,600 American servicemen, and service women have given their lives and tens of thousands more have been maimed. We are relentlessly sacrificing the flower of our youth in an undeclared war with vague goals, no exit strategy and no way to define victory.

And what sacrifices have we here at home been asked to make? Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Contrast this with the home front during the Second World War. Then we were well aware there was a war going on. Food, clothing, shoes, gasoline and tires were rationed. Scrap metal was collected diligently. Some metals were extremely scarce. An empty toothpaste tube had to be turned in when buying a new tube of toothpaste. Victory gardens sprouted in vacant city lots and suburban backyards to augment the food supply.

A family with sons or daughters in service had a small banner in a window with one or more blue stars on it. The dreaded telegram from the War Department announcing the death of a loved one turned a blue star to gold.

A spirit of purpose was abroad in the land. Through it all, the patrician voice of the president gave comforting assurance in radio broadcasts he called "fireside chats." People learned to make do with less--but these were small sacrifices compared to what was being given up by our fighting men and women.

War bonds financed the massive war effort. Taxes were hiked, and money was made more immediately available to the government by a new gimmick: withholding of taxes, an idea proposed by Beardsley Ruml, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and adviser to the President. This was a variation of installment buying, a payment plan instituted by Ruml as an executive of Macy's department store. Paradoxically, tax withholding later made possible the outsize spending budgets of some administrations that caused the unimaginable deficit the country is still paying interest on.

Today, apathy reigns at home, and we immerse ourselves in shopping or sports spectacles during which token acknowledgement of the existence of an interminable war in an obligatory moment of silence for the fallen. Then it is back to the mindless game. Our knowledge of the blood and dirt of battle comes from the special +effects created for war movies and violent computer games.

How did we manage to create such an enormous disconnect between the home front and the troops? It began in January of 1973 when Congress abandoned national service, also called "the draft." This reaction to the imbalance of sacrifice imposed by the unpopular Vietnam War effectively changed the American armed forces.

What in past wars had been a succession of vast armies of quickly trained citizen-soldiers responding to an emergency became an all-volunteer force ready to strike on a moment's notice. The gigantic active military machine has now become a class apart, not unlike the priesthood. For most Americans today, military service hardly touches our lives. It is something the children of other people do.

Few of us know how hazardous it is to fight a stealthy enemy with too-few troops using the tools and tactics of conventional warfare, and with equipment unsuited for guerrilla warfare. Thirty-seven months after the premature "Mission Accomplished" moment, some troops are still making do with unarmored vehicles not intended for such stealthy warfare; even an armored Humvee cannot withstand a roadside bomb. And the wheeled landing craft the Marines are using in Iraq were intended for landing on beaches, not cruising hazardous desert roads.

And how do we honor their lonely deaths? We put magnetic yellow ribbons on the rear ends of our automobiles or attach flags to their antennas, and quickly return to complaining about the hardships imposed by the high price of gasoline.

We said nothing when a supine Congress failed to insist on its constitutional prerogative to declare war and surrendered war-making power to the President. Is it any wonder that Congress today is held in such low esteem?

The rush to war was predicated on the imminent danger of attack by Iraq. When no weapons of mass destruction were found there, our government hastily concocted a new purpose for the war: to turn that unruly tribalized country into a democracy. Running for office, George W. Bush blasted nation-building and vowed never to allow our military to become entangled in the process. Now we are up to our elbows in it.

"Stay the course," we are told. What course? The Administration seems to be making it up as they go along, hoping by guess and by God that everything will come out right in the end. Although we pay lip service to democracy, when the time comes to demonstrate to the world our devotion to the system, a majority of the American voting population fails to show up at the polls.

We allowed the hunt for bin Laden and the terrorists responsible for 9/11 to be derailed and converted to an interminable war that has made Iraq a vast training ground for a host of al-Quaida acolytes. We have destroyed cities and killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Our response to Iraqis unhappy with our actions as occupiers is to characterize them as ingrates. And we wonder why we are reviled throughout the Muslim world.

Our access to factual information has been arbitrarily curtailed. When our forces accidentally kill one of our own in the heat of battle, as happened to football star Pat Tillman, our government creates a phony story of the circumstances of his death "to shield his family." Officials shamefully tried to conceal the truth for almost five weeks--truth it knew from the moment the first battle reports were collected.

In a replay of Vietnam, the Administration again gives us rosy predictions that never materialize, supported by inflated enemy body counts and distorted news. A favorite line is that the insurgency is limited to only four of Iraq's eighteen provinces. What they do not tell us is that these four provinces contain more than half the population of Iraq. Anyone who legitimately questions the wisdom of this pointless, ill-advised war--even a parent who has lost a son or daughter--is branded as unpatriotic and disloyal.

We have a president who prides himself on not reading newspapers, rendering him unaware of the rising groundswell of opposition to his policies. Our chief executive lives in a cocoon insulated from the world by sycophantic advisors. His administration is rife with croneyism and corruption more blatant than the infamous Harding administration in the 1920s. His favorite venue for speechifying is a military base where service members can be counted on not to raise embarrassing questions.

He is now beginning to rattle his sword in the direction of Iran, a country bent on developing nuclear power that would give it the potential for nuclear weapons. In the meantime, all the while President Bush has been meddling in the Middle East, North Korea has been diligently creating atomic weapons under his very nose, making that country a genuine threat to South Korea and Japan.

We complacently allowed this travesty to happen in our name. Could it be because the Middle East is awash in oil?

Shame on us.

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