No Personal Stake, Little Interest In War

December 13, 2009|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks , dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

I have had a couple of telephone conversations with a Maryland native who arrived in Afghanistan a year ago today - U.S. Army Capt. Jason Wingeart, who grew up in the Hereford Zone of Baltimore County. He's commander of Company B, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, stationed at an outpost in the volatile Charkh district of Logar province, south of Kabul. His unit's mission is to support the local government, train the Afghan police - a particularly daunting challenge - and to protect villagers and the district center from insurgent attacks.

The phone conversations with Captain Wingeart, a bright and thoughtful commander who also served in Iraq, were remarkable for their technical quality; the young captain sounded like he was calling from a farm in Hereford, not an outpost 7,000 miles away, where soldiers have died in recent action.

I found some irony in that: Technological advances in communications bring the war close to home, yet for most Americans, this war has become, eight years after Sept. 11, a remote and nebulous concept: Who are we fighting? What's the mission? How long before the mission is considered accomplished?

President Barack Obama has delivered two eloquent and rational speeches in argument for another troop surge. Members of Congress, including some from his own party, questioned and criticized the president's ambition to escalate the troop commitment in Afghanistan, but it doesn't appear there's going to be much of a fight over this. Barack Obama, like George W. Bush, will get his way.

It might be because all those lawmakers in Washington have other things to tend to - the health insurance overhaul, for one thing - or perhaps they believe the current president deserves a chance to finish something his predecessor started. And few members of Congress ever want to vehemently oppose a war while troops, like Captain Wingeart, are putting their lives on the line.

(The 3rd Brigade Combat Team has seen 24 soldiers killed in the past year, and 221 soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, have been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq since 2001, according to published reports.)

There's one other reason why members of Congress who complained about Mr. Obama's strategy have moved on to other business: They just don't hear much from the folks back in their districts.

Americans might not have a lot of confidence in the war, but few of us are personally invested in it. We don't have a son or daughter in the fight. In the age of the all-volunteer military, any president, Republican or Democrat, can do almost whatever he wishes when it comes to combat operations. Without a draft in place, and millions of young Americans facing the prospect of being called to serve, the president and the generals can go a long time - deep into any strategy they conceive - without fear of a surge of public opinion to counter it.

We haven't really been asked to sacrifice much when it comes to winning the war on terrorism. A Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania suggested a surtax to finance the Afghanistan escalation, starting in 2011, and it was pretty much declared dead-on-arrival by the speaker of the House. We've spent about $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and the monthly bill for Afghanistan will rise to an estimated $8 billion.

Meanwhile, the military remains stressed, despite reaching its recruitment goals for the first time in years. Several years of repeated deployments have taken a heavy toll. Both the Army and the Marine Corps have been hit with rising rates of depression, divorce and suicide. "Guard and reserve components also have deployed at levels not envisioned when the all-volunteer force was introduced," Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, the Navy secretary during the Reagan administration, wrote recently. "We are in uncharted territory in terms of the long-term effects these deployments are having ..."

And there's hardly a peep among military and political leaders in this country that a draft might be needed to meet the nation's ambitions.

The men and women who volunteered for the military, and their families, are carrying this load for the rest of us.

So, when I hear politicians and pundits speak in the first person plural - "We have to do this," and "We have to do that" - my reactions now range from amusement to anger because there's really not much "we" about this.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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