September 2008

People are the Currency We Pay for War

by Jonathan Wallace

Reporting on the Iraq war by the New York Times has been strangely dainty, with daily detached accounts of casualties (two US soldiers killed by an "improvised explosive device") with a separate listing of names, ranks and localities of origin which does not give the cause of death. You can rarely if ever match the names of the dead up to specific articles, and details are never given. The paper never profiles individual soldiers, their dreams or aspirations, the people they left behind, the cruel manner of their passing. An occasional article hints that there is a distressing occurrence of non-combat related death in the war zone (soldiers electrocuted while showering due to shoddy contractor work, suicide, vehicle accidents, some murders) but rarely is much detail given. The rare exception is the death of a celebrity soldier such as Corporal Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, the football player killed by friendly fire.

For the average Times reader who knows no-one serving in the military, this contributes to a sense of calm detachment, as if the people giving their lives in Iraq are not human but a commodity of sorts, merely "the price we pay for liberty".

Similarly, when we read about wounded, we are left with the calm impression that they are likely to have been lightly hurt, like the actor on a television show who receives a pretended bullet in the arm, and is wholly healed and back in action by the next week's episode. Little has been written to make us focus on the traumatic brain injuries, the blinding and amputations, and the terrible arc of these badly wounded people through our nation's wholly inadequate Veteran's Administration system.

We did get some insight into this when a celebrity, a television newsman covering the war, received a traumatic brain injury for which he received much better care than an ordinary soldier. He had the integrity to report on the discrepancy--once. Similarly, we have the occasional HBO special about wounded soldiers. But death and terrible injury is still not a part of our daily consciousness, even though the deaths have exceeded the 4000 mark.

Because of the volunteer army, for much of higher educated, wealthier America, these are not the people we know. Our children don't volunteer. Almost nobody in Congress has a child in the military. There is a terrible complacency in the thought that the people dying for us are those who would have stayed home if they could have found a job at Walmart.

A corrolary is that women have quietly begun dying in combat at a level unheard of in prior wars. The majority of the women who died in the Korean war were nurses killed in a single airplane crash. Although female soldiers today in a time of greater equality are not supposed to be deployed in combat below the battalion level, the lack of actual fronts and lines of battle in Iraq means that hundreds of women are dying or being wounded under fire, by improvised explosive devices, by suicide bomb, as well as by the typical "non-combat" means of suicide and vehicular accident.

I believe that there is no fundamental difference between men and women which would keep women out of any job, including combat. A soldier I know who served two terms in Iraq says he met women there "with whom I'd rather kick a door down than most men". I can envision a future in which women serve in combat at the squad level or in any other role they seek. But we haven't attained that future; there has been no thought process, no consent, no recognition; we are simply shoddily using resources wherever we can due to the flagging resources of a volunteer army, and turning a blind eye to the results.

Then there has been government regulation and pressure to avert or limit coverage of mourning, of coffins unloaded from planes, of the financial difficulties of widows and widowers and children left behind.

It is the responsibility of the press in a democracy to force us to look at what we would rather not see, and not simply to report the official line with complacency.

I think there are several problems with war reporting: the insane phsyical risks which many reporters are unwilling to take, no matter how ambitious; the increased complexity of "embedding" reporters with military units, where their access to actual war zones and information is carefully managed and from which they may be "de-embedded" if perceived as too negative (or truthful); but most of all, a lingering perception, post-9/11, that it is unpatriotic to tell too much truth about a war.

Iraq, like Vietnam, is a war which won't make any sense to historians. In Vietnam, we fought an insurgency in a small country which less than forty years later, is an ally and a tourism destination. When we decided that war had become too costly and withdrew--there were no consenquences. No dominos toppling, no ominous shadow of unified world communism extending across the earth. It is safe to say today that the fifty thousand people who died for us in Vietnam died for nothing. Were wasted. Thrown away.

In Iraq we fought the wrong enemy at the wrong time, when a greater one awaited in the tribal areas of Pakistan. That enemy is still there, almost untouched, and coming back in strength while we waste men and women in Iraq.

If the press won't make us focus on the terrible price we are paying for seeking a fight in the wrong place, then we can continue to sleep each night, coddled in complacency, unconfronted by the fact that political stupidity and arrogance is not something which is completely wiped away at the next election, but for which there is a permanent cost, of damage done which can never be repaired.