I read something today that has finally helped me to understand the lack of outrage from American citizens regarding the loss of life in our concurrent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Every time I hear of another of our soldiers dying, I feel the sense of needless death. A life cut short, families and friends devastated, for an endless mission of Nation Building in a remote, mountainous place on the other side of the globe. Then I notice that my peers, friends and family carry on as though nothing happened, or as if what’s happened has little importance. Honestly, I do as well.
I am old enough to remember the protests against the Vietnam War. That war tore apart our nation and became the centerpiece of daily life until finally, after years of pressure, our leaders called an end to the folly and brought our forces home. Every aspect of American life was affected by that war, from the music to the clothing to the splintering of trust in our government. The media played a crucial role in bringing the war home to our citizenry as we watched the nightmare unfold on our televisions and saw in graphic detail in our newspapers and magazines exactly what was going on in the jungles of Vietnam.
Today, we get almost no coverage of the war. We will get a headline that reads something like “5 US Troops killed in fighting in Southern Afghanistan today” followed by a few paragraphs of narrative and perhaps a dead soldier tally. That’s it. We see no footage from the battlefield, nor do we see graphic details of the deaths of our sons who we’ve sent to fight and die. We don’t see the civilian loss of life as we drop bombs and fire missiles into villages and convoys hoping to get an insurgent or two. We lost almost 5,000 soldiers in the Iraq war, yet that is no longer even discussed.
What’s different between the America of the Vietnam War and the America of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars? Well first of all the scope of the war is dramatically different. In Vietnam, we lost 58,159 US soldiers, which is a staggering toll. Millions of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians died in the conflict. At the peak of our involvement, the US had over 550,000 troops on the ground. An engagement of this size cannot help but occupy the front pages and the top stories on the nightly news. But in addition to the sheer scope of the conflict is perhaps the most important factor in analyzing today’s disconnected American public; the draft. During Vietnam the US government literally pulled young men off the streets and forced them into uniform and then sent them overseas to fight. When your son and your neighbor’s son and your nephew and your brother all get drafted and sent to Vietnam, you will notice.
Today’s military is all voluntary. These men and women sign up to serve, for all manner of reasons, and they do so knowing full well they may go to a far away land to fight. I suppose they don’t expect to die in Afghanistan but I’m sure they realize the possibility. Your son and your neighbor’s son and your nephew and your brother may all serve, but they chose to do so. And this simple fact removes the sense of outrage that the draft brought out in the average American.
And so our meddling in the affairs of foreign lands continues unabated. Today we have almost 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and it has been our longest war as a nation. We still have 100,000 troops in Iraq, and we are conducting military drills off the coast of South Korea. We have troops stationed in 80 countries around the world and frequently mobilize them to bring US aid wherever our leaders feel it is needed. We routinely read about possible military strikes against Iran, and we talk tough about our full support of Israel. Americans accept this as part of our way of life, with no sense of outrage at all.