Americans are talking war in this season of peace on earth and good will toward men.
Google gives more than 2 billion references to my war query this Monday morning, but only 786 million on peace. War on this, war on that. War on ISIS, war on ISIL, war in Syria, war on terror, war of words among the political warriors on whether we should go to war.
We have good reason to be in a fighting mood. We’ve been stung at home by terrorists, adding urgency to what we see as a long-term fight against international terrorism and the conflicts in Syria and surrounding nations.
But we have come to use the word so casually, as if we have forgotten the terrible cost of war on the people of other nations and on our armed forces. Have we forgotten that we have not yet paid for the last war we fought, the war that staggers on in Iraq and Afghanistan? Have we forgotten the costs that will continue for decades, paying for the shattered lives of many of those who went to fight?
An article in the November issue of The American Legion magazine cited a 2013 Harvard University study that put the cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars at between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. Some $2 trillion of that has already been paid in borrowed dollars and the rest will accumulate over the decades to come in long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members and rebuilding the military capability drained by the wars.
The Legion article pointed to the failure of the “war-light” expectations of the planners for Iraq and Afghanistan – the idea that the war could be fought on the cheap (some $200 billion by one White House estimate that was derided as too high by the war planners).
“The large sums borrowed to finance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will also impose substantial long-term debt servicing costs,” said the author of the Harvard report, Linda J. Bilmes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan senior lecturer in public policy. “As a consequence of these wartime spending choices, the United States will face constraints in funding investments in personnel and diplomacy, research and development and new military initiatives. The legacy of decisions taken during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will dominate future federal budgets for decades to come.”
We can only speculate on what might have been done with these trillions if we hadn’t made the mistakes outlined in the Legion’s article.
So to any politician who calls for escalating our war commitments, I would ask for a full explanation of how such a commitment will be financed. Would he or she be willing to support the tax policies that paid for World War II? President Roosevelt proposed a 100 percent rate on the top earners, which he never got, but by 1942 Congress raised top rates to 88 percent on incomes over $200,000 (about $3 million in today’s money) and by 1944, the top rate reached an all-time high of 94 percent.
And would those pushing for “boots-on-the-ground” war be willing to endorse the conscription policies of World War II so that all Americans would share in the commitment? The all-volunteer force has created a warrior class that is often effusively praised, but too easily neglected.
If the answer to those questions is no, then that politician would deserve the epithet “chicken hawk,” one who is unwilling to shoulder the full responsibility that war imposes.
Yes, we might have to engage terrorists militarily, but we must acknowledge the costs of such engagement honestly and with the fullest transparency for what it means to our future as a nation.
We might not have peace on earth that we so desire this Christmas, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the search. Here’s how Veterans for Peace (veteransforpeace.org) concluded a long recitation of our troubles, including the recent attack in San Bernardino:
“It certainly does look like things might get worse, perhaps terribly worse, before they get better. But Peace IS Possible (sic). Veterans for Peace has a special role in acting for peace. … We will tell our own stories in order to help other people overcome their fear to push our political leaders to make wise decisions that will actually bring about peace. If we believe it. If we live it. If we act on it. If we make it so, there will be peace.”
I hope they’re right.
Dave Skoloda is an award-winning journalist and former owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.