The Bureau of the Census has issued a lengthy
summary of "facts" about the nation's 23.7 million veterans
in time for Veteran's Day. Considering that there are two significant
ongoing armed conflicts involving U.S. forces, I expected that there would be
some "facts" dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nothing was disaggregated. Well, nearly nothing. Where detail was provided,
it rarely was framed by war as opposed to education, age or ethnicity.
One statistic I did expect was the number of troops "wounded in hostile
engagements" who had been discharged from service and transferred to veterans'
medical care. (According to the Pentagon, total U.S. wounded from enemy action
in Iraq is 28,327 and in Afghanistan 1,708.) But this also was not there even
though that number along with projections for future years has
to exist within the Veterans Administration (VA) so its staff can prepare their
annual budget request.
Thinking these two items might be linked, I re-read
the notice looking for spending just on veterans' medical care. Dead last
was total spending by the VA in 2006 and a breakout between medical and non-medical
spending for that year.
As a veteran who uses the military medical system, I could not help but wonder
if the placement of this information was nothing more than happenstance, a fading
echo of the recently revealed mishandling of war wounded and not a harbinger
of the how the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan will be regarded in the priorities
of future administrations.
Actually, the census report raised more questions than it answered. Looking
through the Bush administration's proposed Fiscal Year 2008 Budget submission
turned up the following:
- In 2006, the Bush administration's budget request for the Veterans
Health Administration (VHA) was still less than half ($31.3 billion) the total
request ($75.7 billion) for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
- In 2007, the VHA's budget request actually dropped from about 43%
of the total Veterans Administration proposed budget to 40%. Congress added
$1.8 billion in the 2007 supplemental.
- The White House however, does not seem able to fathom the long-term medical
costs of the Iraq War and its Afghanistan operations. Although it appears
that VHA will be funded at $37.2 billion for 2008, the administration projects
a 2% drop in funding for 2009 and a repeat of this lower level in 2010. That's
just incomprehensible given that the wars are not likely to be over by then.
Supporting the Troops
The public comprehends the principle that if the
nation sends its youth to war, it owes those young men and women the best medical
care regardless of cost should they be wounded. This distinction is a variation
of the classic "support the troops support the war" dichotomy
that scares and scars politicians. In an age of 15-second sound bites, all that
need be said is "Senator (or Representative) X voted against funding our
troops in the field," letting the silence of the syllogistic "therefore"
be completed by the voter: that in refusing to vote for the military's
budget request the congressional incumbent doesn't care about either the
dead or the living.
Regardless of the precipitating event, once the armed forces are "on
the ground," the president of the United States is in the enviable position
to blackmail Congress into providing funds for the troops fighting for "God,
country, and the American way." It doesn't seem to make any difference
which party controls Congress or occupies the White House. The worst political
sin is to be susceptible to the charge of "not supporting the troops."
Ironically, even when the wars they wage are as widely unpopular as today's
operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, presidents can blackmail the American people
the same way and they get away with it for the same reason: no one wants
to be accused of not standing up for the troops or appear to be unwilling to
give them the best of everything. This stems from the belief that the United
States is always justified in going to war, that God is on "our side"
(or at the very least, is not on the "other" side).
In accepting the demise of the conscript army
and the emergence of the modern military professional, the American public assigned
the responsibility for military defense to a class of people the Warriors
and in typical fashion, turned their attention elsewhere. This left
as the main advocates for post-military service benefits (other than the formal
institutions of government) the traditional veterans' advocacy organizations
such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), AMVETS, and the American Legion.
In peacetime, this façade of a "caring" nation could be
maintained with little more than the ritual appearance by the "commander-in-chief"
(and in election years by candidates for president) at veterans' conventions
and the odd extra half-billion or billion dollars in additional spending that
was never enough to catch up with needed improvements in the military and veterans
Under pressure from two wars, the "center" could not sustain itself
or conceal the dichotomy between excellent medicine and paralyzing administrative
Walter Reed Effect
Then came what could be termed the "Walter
Reed effect": the "fall-out" from investigative reporting
by The Washington Post of substandard living arrangements for seriously
wounded soldiers, of insufficient numbers of trained case workers for the number
of wounded, and the expectation of hospital administrative staff that the wounded
could traverse a very convoluted medical bureaucracy without substantial help.
All this, together with the seeming indifference of general officers and administrative
personnel toward those with psychological trauma or more evident brain injuries,
rekindled empathy for the war-wounded among large segments of the U.S. public.
Initially, this renewed concern for the warriors and the question of why their
care was so remiss did not cross into questioning the war itself, perhaps because
one could, in the early days, talk war without having to talk veterans. And
when veterans were mentioned, the traditional veterans groups stepped forward,
as they had in the past, and generally supported the president's policy.
It would not be too long, however, before voices of returned soldiers, wounded
or not, and of the survivors of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were raised
in protest first singly and then collectively in new groups such as
Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans Against the Iraq War, and even among
the veterans of the Vietnam War.
As the extent of the deficiencies became clearer, as more and more members
of Congress visited hospitals and saw first-hand the extensive physical and
mental injuries, as they learned of the extensive treatments that would have
to last a lifetime, they at last began to fathom the woeful under funding of
veteran's health and rehabilitation costs.
The apparent callousness of top Army officials to the status quo did not sit
well with the public. This perception of official indifference acted as a catalyst
to re-engage the American public on the issue of why these wars with their ever-increasing
casualties hadn't ended.
Vets Find Their Voices
Veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan
began to find their voice-in-opposition and to take on the issue of inadequate
care for the wounded. And since the wounded remain distinctive personalities,
because they are not hidden away from society, they cannot be treated as an
undifferentiated class like those who are killed and usually become,
other than for their loved ones who remain, more of a statistic than a memory.
Indeed, today's wounded (and today's 3,858 dead in Iraq and 459
in Afghanistan) present the public with an opportunity to start to end the fighting,
the dying, and the maiming that seem to be endemic in the "social contract"
of modern nation states. How? By bringing face-to-face those who serve with
those who first asked them to serve, sent them to "care" for (that
is, to fight for) the nation, and in so doing created a moral and even a legal
reciprocal obligations to care for the wounded who "cared" for the
nation when asked.
While this approach might seem to leave a huge gap through which to drive a
tank army, it would strip away the sterile masks that protect those who make
war from those who "do" war at the maker's behest
and in the name of the "people" who often have absolutely no say
in the decision for war.
It's different today than during the Vietnam War, when even wounded veterans
were sometimes reviled and taunted as "baby-killers." Vietnam may
have been the tipping point, for that was the first U.S. television war. The
horrendous wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan have moved the public beyond the
halfway point of transitioning from a warrior mentality and myth to a culture
and outlook that celebrate peace.
The challenge is how to keep together the need for adequate appropriations
to care for the wounded for as long as necessary with the realization that those
who need long-term care once were able-bodied men and women. Still to be traversed
is the gap between the recognition of the cost of caring for the wounded and
caring about that is, rejecting the reasons why politicians
opt for war in the first instance.
Meanwhile, the number of mercenaries (politely termed "security contractors"
in the mainstream media and political debate) just in Iraq is reportedly
between 20,000 and 30,000. That's more than some countries have in their
whole armed forces.
So now there is another consideration: will the public, and the Congress, in
rebelling against the cost of paying for war and the war-wounded, opt for a
fully mercenary force to wage our wars?
That was what Rome did. History records the outcome.