The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq exposed up to 3½ million service members to toxic substances, harming their health. Yet the government has denied most disability claims by veterans suffering from ailments caused by those toxins.
A bill making slow but steady progress in Congress would alleviate that distress. Recognizing toxic exposure as a detriment of war, it aims to expand access to VA health care for millions of combat veterans. It streamlines the process of the Department of Veterans Affairs for establishing the presumption of toxic exposure. It is H.R. 3967, titled the Honoring Our PACT (Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics) Act of 2022, introduced in June 2021 by Rep. Mark Takano, Democrat from Riverside, California, and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
So far, so good. Who can object to a bill to help injured veterans? It has earned strong bipartisan support, and both the House and Senate have already passed versions of it. But notice the way Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representatives speaker, introduced news of he bill’s progress to her constituents, in San Francisco. It came by email a few days ago but was based on a speech of hers to the House in March.
Honoring our veterans
From the deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan, a generation of courageous Americans have donned the stars and stripes to protect our freedom. Those heroes have put their lives on the line to fight for our country. Yet, tragically, many have confronted another deadly threat – exposure to burn pits and toxics, which have taken a severe toll on their health.
It raises questions. The most obvious: Where are all those Americans who have "donned" (dressed in) stars and stripes, rather than khaki or navy blue? Frivolity aside, how in the world did the Iraq and Afghan wars "protect our freedom"? If anything, the wars arguably restricted freedom in America. They brought us government spying, imprisonment without trial, profiling of and assaults on minorities, and torture of prisoners or their "rendition" abroad to be tortured.
By what right do we crush theirrights?
Even if we assume that foreign wars did somehow "protect our freedom," did the U.S. government have any right to deprive people in those countries of theirs? It took away their rights by lawlessly bombing, shooting, invading, and ruling them. The United Nations Charter (signed in 1945 in San Francisco) forbids such aggressive war, and the North Atlantic Treaty (1949) backs up the UN. The Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) renounces war altogether as an instrument of national policy.
George W. Bush did not start his two wars on account of anybody’s "freedom, despite nicknaming them "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and "Operation Enduring Freedom" (in Afghanistan). In 1999, two years before entering the White House, he told a prospective biographer he would wage war on Iraq if he became president. Through aggressive military action, he would surpass what Father did there when the latter wasted political capital by letting Saddam Hussein off the hook. As commander-in-chief, he, George W., would be seen as a great leader and get all the laws passed that he wanted.
As president, he gave the public varying rationalizations for the war. The primary one was the supposed danger to the US, of Iraq’s "weapons of mass destruction" and ties to terrorists. Those allegations were soon proved groundless. Nevertheless, Bush continued to justify the war. Saddam Hussein had posed a threat to the world and, besides, ran "an appalling regime that the world is well rid of," said Bush, who should know appalling regimes.
The Afghan invasion and occupation was sold as a war on "terrorism." Actually Bush was more interested in creating an oil pipeline from central Asia; building America’s empire; indulging a love for vicarious violence (like that of Father’s), and displaying strength in response to 9/11. His initial excuse was the Taliban’s refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden to the US As a compromise, they offered to try him or have a third country do so, but Bush wanted to fight the Taliban. The outcome was two decades of terror imposed on the people of Afghanistan.
Probably over a million people, including 7,000+ Americans, succumbed to four Bush wars. Don’t forget George H. W. Bush’s first war on Iraq and his attack on Panama.
On glorifying war and warriors
Is it beneficial to glorify US conflicts, however cruel and unnecessary, praising all our fighters as "heroes"? Or does that glorification merely help to perpetuate what the preamble to the UN Charter decries as "the scourge of war"? When we thank servicemen for their service in going abroad to kill for the president, are we doing the young people of the future any favor?
Not all veterans take pride in their wartime experiences. At the Winter Soldier hearings in 1971, conducted in Detroit by antiwar veterans, Vietnam vets described war crimes they committed or witnessed. The pattern was replicated by the 2008 Winter Soldier hearings in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the experiences of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Bits of three testimonies follow.
An ex-marine from Vermont said "I am sorry for the hate and destruction that I have inflicted on innocent people…." the first person he killed in Iraq was "walking back to his house, and I shot him in front of his friend and his father….. My company commander personally congratulated me…." The commander promised that whoever got his first kill by stabbing would get a four-day pass upon returning from Iraq. The marine told of shooting a man riding a bicycle; firing into mosques out of anger; and kicking in doors at 3 a.m. to terrorize families. In one house, he noticed wires that he thought suspicious, so the man possessing them was "taken care of."
Another witness was a former army soldier, later to become a conscientious objector, who participated in the invasion of Iraq. His role was not engaging the enemy but blasting homes with his mortar. "I don’t know how many civilians, innocents, I’ve killed…." As aerial shells, missiles, and bombs pounded Samawah, he heard on his radio a lieutenant colonel’s order, followed by a sniper’s query: "Excuse me? Did I hear you right? Fire on all taxicabs?" The officer’s reply: "You heard me, trooper. Fire on all taxicabs!" The sniper did.
A former marine corporal described loose or nonexistent rules of engagement: "If the town or the city that we were approaching was a known threat … we were allowed to shoot whatever we wanted. It was deemed to be a free-fire zone. So we would roll through the town … and opened fire on everything…. I remember one woman was walking by, and she was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading towards us. So we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher. And when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was only full of groceries. And, I mean, she had been trying to bring us food, and we blew her to pieces for it."
We can feel sympathy for the plight of veterans – many disabled by war yet refused help by their government – without having to swallow the baloney that lured them to war in the first place.
Paul W. Lovinger, of San Francisco, is a journalist, author, editor, and antiwar activist. (See www.warandlaw.org.)