I’m one of the lucky fathers. My son came home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan unharmed and with only modest medical issues. David will have some chronic knee problems and will continue for a while to need some mild medication for sleep and anxiety. But he’s happily back home in Philadelphia, working on a graduate degree and training monthly with his National Guard unit. The parents of many other sons and daughters have a far less happy story to tell.
The recent elections that dominated our news media for months largely proceeded as if the war in Afghanistan and the continued security risks in Iraq didn’t exist. It was all about jobs and the economy. That is certainly understandable for those who are out of work or who are legitimately in danger of losing their jobs. But those numbers, while still alarmingly high, represent only a relatively small percentage of the electorate. You would have thought that someone might have had time to consider the devastating moral and financial impact of nearly a decade of war on our nation. You would have liked to believe that someone running for office would have felt compelled to ask serious questions about two wars that have consumed tens of thousands of military and civilian lives and contributed enormously to our wounded economy rather than merely pandering to bigots with histrionics about a mosque in lower Manhattan. But, apparently pollsters determined the wars were largely irrelevant to the voters.
Cynical politicians in Iraq refuse to form a new government as they jockey for personal gain. Hamid Karzai cheerfully admits that he regularly receives “bags of money” from Iran in order to pay off political allies and calls press conferences to heap public scorn on the United States and other NATO allies. Those who deceived the nation’s political leadership and most of its citizens into endorsing their adventure in Iraq now write unchastened memoirs where the only regret is implementation, not the war itself. Security is better in Iraq. But last week’s carnage at a Chaldean Catholic Church reminds us of the lingering danger. How ironic that President Bush, for all his evangelical fervor, set in motion a train of events that is likely to result in the disappearance of the ancient Christian community in Iraq. My son enjoyed warm friendships with wonderful Afghan colleagues. But he came home with nothing but distain for the blatantly corrupt Afghan political leadership in his province. Is any of this worth the price we have asked of those who volunteered to serve?
Today is Veteran’s Day, formerly called Armistice Day. Ninety-two years ago the war that was to “make the world safe for democracy” came to an end. Instead it ushered in the most violent century in human history, swelling the ranks of veterans and adding vast acres to military cemeteries. I wonder what today’s veterans are thinking as they watch houses of worship destroyed in Baghdad or listen to the President of Afghanistan scorn their sacrifices. We do a better job of honoring their sacrifice and service than we did for the veterans of my generation’s war in Vietnam. But true respect for today’s veterans would also include contrition for the political conceit that made us overreach, for the political deceit that cynically lured us toward disaster, for the political incompetence that made a bad situation infinitely worse, and for the lack of political courage to call anyone to account let alone bring it all to an end. I don’t see any of that happening. Instead, we’ll give a nod to our veterans and then go back to fretting over the future of our own financial security while many of our leaders are well into scorched earth strategies for winning the White House in 2012.
One hundred and fifty years ago this month Abraham Lincoln won the election that sent him to the White House. The election of 1860 was certainly not free of partisan rancor or even violent intimidation. But history does suggest that at least among some of those political leaders there was a readiness to debate the most pressing moral issues of the day, not simply appeal to pocket book issues. Five years ago when I tried to deliver 60,000 petitions from United Church of Christ members against today’s wars to President Bush, the White House wouldn’t even send an aide out to the front gate to receive them. I’m not sure there would be a lot more interest today. I really don’t know what veterans think about these wars we’ve asked them to fight, or the regimes we’ve asked them to defend. Maybe they don’t care that their months and years in Iraq and Afghanistan seem of such minimal importance that they claimed little to no place in the electoral process this fall. Or maybe they do care but feel that no one listens, that life goes on as though they and the wars don’t matter, that things veterans care about like homeless veterans and educational benefits and VA health care aren’t all that important to others in the country. I do know that if David had come home in a box or without a limb or confronting demons every night my rage and disappointment with my nation and its leaders would be immeasurable.
But then, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe most of today’s veterans feel lucky. After all, these wars did provide them with a job. And, if the politicians are right, that’s really what it’s all about.
John H. Thomas