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For the last 15 weeks or so, we have reviewed the aspects of military culture and defined some of the dynamics of the military family. The next step in our conversation is to put into context our combat warriors and the wars they fought, beginning with the Korean War, and updating our discussion to the post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
All wars can be described in terms of:
- justification and outcome
- public understanding and support
- strategic implications
From the birth of the US, our citizens have debated the size and role of the military, and the political discourse at times has included very intense debates on whether to go to war. So, each war has had its unique aspects that posed challenges to:
- public’s view and role
- care system for the warrior in war
- care system to each veteran following the war
What do we do with a large standing military at the end of war? After most of our conflicts or war, Congress has determined to “right-size” the military, which means that the military goes through a reduction in force. At times this is called a “peace dividend.”
And, what do we do with the veteran after war? In Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, close to the end of the Civil War, he stressed that the nation had an obligation to those “who have borne the battle.” This long standing understanding became crucial following the First World War and World War II. Going to war required a special sacrifice. For this reason, the nation owed the veteran special acknowledgement.
AMERICA AT WAR
From the American Revolution to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been significant changes in the ways wars have been fought and the ways in which the US has approached war. America’s wars prior to Korea were in direct response to an attack or provocation. There is a line that follows from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq. Korea was the first of 4 sustained, multi-year wars that responded to presumed or implicit threat. Although each began with some clear political objectives, only in the case of the Gulf War of 1991 were the objectives met and only in that case did withdrawal follow the meeting of the objectives. Since World War II, the only sustained war in which the US was directly attacked was Operation Enduring Freedom. However, the attack came not from a country, but by from a group training and working within Afghanistan.
Commonalities of war since Korea are:
- no formal declaration of war
- marked with political constraints on the use of military force
- military objectives were marked by imprecise and changing objectives
- witnessed a fundamental shift in public enthusiasm and support
- understanding of the mission and support for the troops depended on some ambiguous premise and soft assumptions
COSTS OF WAR
I often see the cost of war only listed in resources and money. The US spends an estimated 4-5% of its GDP each year on the military. The military portion of the budget goes to any military-related expenditure such as pay, training, health care of uniformed and civilian personnel, maintenance of arms, equipment and facilities, construction, and development and purchase of new equipment.
Beyond the cost of the military, there is the added cost for war, and it can be steep. The estimated cost of war to the GDP is:
- World War 1: 14%
- World War 2: 36%
- Korea: 4%
- Vietnam: 2%
- Iraq: 1%
- Afghanistan: no final figure
- Libya: 0.01%
However, it is in the human cost of life that one begins to recognize the sacrifice made by those who put on the uniform and the families who remain at home. Of course statistics do not tell all, but just a glimpse at the following will suggest the number of families affected by the toll of war. The number of combat dead and wounded US service members from some past wars:
- American Revolution – 8,000, 25,000 wounded
- War of 1812 – 2,260, 4,5-5 wounded
- Civil War – 212,938, 476,000 wounded
- Mexican War – 1,733, 4,152 wounded
- World War I – 53,402, 204,000 wounded
- World War II – 291,557, 671,000 wounded
- Korean War – 33,746, 103,000 wounded
- Vietnam – 47,424, 153,000 wounded
- Post 9/11 (Afghanistan and Iraq) – 5,281, 53,000 wounded
The above list does not even begin to tell the whole story. The US still has warriors missing in action. The number of dead does not include those who died due to accident or “friendly” fire. And, recently the VA recognized that there has been more Vietnam veterans who have committed suicide than were killed in action. The same holds true for Post 9/11 veterans.
As in every war the wounded are far more numerous than those killed. Common combat injuries have included second and third degree burns, broken bones, shrapnel wounds, brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, nerve damage, paralysis, loss of sight and hearing, post traumatic stress disorder, and amputations. The warriors have suffered grievously as have their families who provide care for them after their return.
In the American political discourse, often the only discussion on the cost of war surrounds the financial costs, strategic costs, and US military casualties. But the human cost affects the fabric of most US communities and families. Our warriors return as veterans to their families and communities with the wounds of war, some are silent wounds. The effects of war linger and can be seen by the employer, college or university faculty and staff, hospital and hospice care providers, and even in the movie theater. Others face a variety of problems reintegrating into their families and communities resulting in joblessness, isolation, divorce, and drug and alcohol addictions among them.
Also, we soon forget the human cost to those whom we fight, to their families and communities. The consequences of war for the people in other countries remain higher than for the US because our wars have largely been fought on foreign soil, except the American Revolution, War of 1812, and the Civil War. Consider the number of civilians killed due to direct violence and fighting, number of war refugees and displaced persons, and violations of human rights.
Lastly, as we look at the places where the US has been involved since the Korean War, it appears the US has been engaged in come conflict or war constantly. The conflicts include:
- Lebanon Crisis
- Bay of Pigs Invasion
- Cuban Missile Crisis
- Dominican Republic
- USS Liberty Incident
- El Salvador Civil War
- Beirut deployment
- Persian Gulf escorts
- Bombing of Libya
- Panama, Gulf War
- Operation Provide Comfort
In all of these operations, the US military experienced loss of life. Also, each operation requires time; time in training, time away from family and community, and time engaged in stressful and dangerous situations. Time spent in stressful situations has a cumulative effect on a warrior, both short term and long term. What may be some mitigating strategies?
Over the course of these next several weeks, we will begin to dig deeper into the specific wars and conflicts since World War II. Next week we will discuss Korea. Please consider joining the conversation…