Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A picture of our cowardice

I have a standard list of websites that I browse when I'm looking for quick procrastination, something I find myself doing often while studying for the bar (the nice online lecturers tell you when to take breaks). Yesterday I came across this picture and it stopped me in my tracks:

The cost of war.

It's hard to offer commentary on such a powerful image. Everyone reacts differently to the costs of war. All of us are touched by it in different ways. Those reactions are naturally shaped by how we feel about a particular conflict. My reaction is one of anger toward our government; a desire to yell at Senators who seem oblivious to recognizing the costs of their actions. But, that's hardly helpful toward a discussion, so I offer the following list:

1965 - 1,863
1966 - 6,143
1967 - 11,153
1968 - 16,592
1969 - 11,616
1970 - 6,081
1971 - 2,357
1972 - 641
1973 - 168

Those are U.S. service member deaths in Vietnam during the era of the Vietnam War. At some point along that trajectory the relevant military leaders in the United States knew that South Vietnam was lost to the communists. We can be confident that this point of time was well before the 'fall' of Saigon in 1975. Such a point in time will come in our current wars. Not necessarily a point of 'loss' or 'victory', but a point when U.S. soldiers should be gone and aren't. A point when the tragedy of this picture happens without reason.

I am an expert in advocating on behalf of the devil, and I have entertained academic arguments for the value of wars lost. When I look at the picture I linked above, the very concept seems shameful. In 1973 heartbreak like that happened in the United States one hundred sixty eight times. To buy what? Dignity? Feeling like we didn't waste our time?

Currently we continue to fight two wars abroad. Two wars that are nebulous enough that I suspect neither will be won nor lost. I know that our soldiers kill and die abroad for our protection. There is little doubt that there are terrorists abroad who would like to kill Americans. Me and you. But, what risk is there of that, when weighed against the lives we know we are losing every day?

That woman's husband was willing to die for us, but where is our willingness to die for him? Where is our willingness to die for her?

When Robert McNamara said that Vietnam was a mistake he spoke not just of the futility of the military conflict, or the manner in which it was engaged. He said that we vastly over-estimated the threat. We were engaged in a global war on communism that had many fronts, but our fear caused us to over-estimate the threat of a communist Vietnam.

Today we are engaged in global war on terror on many fronts. Again, we have over-estimated a threat from a handful of geographic locations. The costs in those locations are astronomical.

It's a cowardly country that sends its heroes to their death so that we might feel the tiniest bit more secure in our world. And, I'm back to wanting to yell at Senators.

Here is McNamara telling us things we learned that we clearly didn't learn:


  1. How do you live, day-to-day, if you or someone you know is in Iraq? Afghanistan?

    There's something more complicated going on, too, and I don't really understand it. I might be wrong, but my sense is that the soldiers themselves are not desperate for the war to end. Which means, necessarily, that they have a different perspective than I do on some key factor: the odds of dying, or the value of the mission. I wonder how explicitly they're lied to about both.

    The value of the mission isn't clear. The best military people in the world can only make good guesses about how many people have to die to achieve what objectives that will cause what results back home and for the people of Afghanistan. So I'll ignore that one. But I wonder how real the threat of death is. Is there a sense of immunity? Invulnerability? Is it just natural? Self-denial? Or actually imprinted from outside. Looking over the numbers, it seems to be something like 3-5%. That's a really high risk. A lot of people are too scared to fly, and those odds are at .00001%.

  2. If I had to guess about soldier mentality, I would think the fact that they have first hand knowledge of the costs of war would play a large part. The argument that withdrawing before victory means that the people who have died up to this point have died in vain is a strong one. I'd imagine that soldiers would have a strong desire not to feel like they are abondoning these losses. Additionally, if you are risking your life, you are invested in the idea that the cause is worthwhile.

    I think that facing danger without fear would be a large part of a soldiers identity. Wanting to go home because of risk to yourself isn't very 'soldier-like.'

  3. Also, I imagine that soldiers are actually doing good on the ground, in individual encounters.