Monday, March 24, 2008

4000: Freedom Isn't Free, but Hubris Takes Its Toll As Well

This week, our nation hit a bleak milestone -- 4000 -- the number of servicemembers killed while fighting in Iraq. It was a roadside bomb on Saturday; an explosion that took the lives of three American soldiers just north of Baghdad. And now, the U.S. death toll in the five-year conflict stands at 4000 -- sadly, it has likely climbed higher even as I write this entry.

Here are some other sobering statistics: an average of one servicemember is killed every day, and seven more are wounded -- every day (ABC News, 3/23/08). Forty of the slain servicemembers were just 18 -- they couldn't buy a beer legally, but they were old enough to die for their country. Another 24 were over age 50; 102 of the war dead are women. We hear the statistics a lot on the nightly news. But for every statistic, there is a face. A mother's son, a father's daughter, a wife's husband, a sister. So many dads and brothers and sons. Too many gold star moms. Faces, not statistics. Their families and friends grieve for their loss, and there is a hole that is left that cannot be filled, only survived.

And still countless more stand vigil, worrying until their loved ones come home safely -- waiting for this tour of duty to be up, hoping against hope there will not be another one. I've watched my mother face her fears about a son in a submarine a thousand miles away, and it was no picnic. But that was also peacetime -- I cannot imagine the fear when active combat is involved. That is the human cost of this war -- and it goes beyond statistics, beyond the trillions spent. It's the faces and the families whose lives are irrevocably changed, it's the lives lost and the bodies broken, it's the changes that come even if families are lucky enough to have their soldier home safely.

Our country mourns these losses, too -- but it seems to me that the nature of this war has let a lot of us do that mourning from a distance, in an almost sterile way. This is an all-volunteer war, with active duty servicemembers and reservists bearing the worst of the burden. For a lot of us -- people of good will though we may be -- we have the rather amazing luxury of going through our day-to-day lives and not constantly being reminded that we are a nation at war. There is something inherently wrong with that state of affairs.

But I don't pretend to have the answers, either. I am not a pacifist. Unfortunately, violence sometimes is necessary to protect what we hold dear, to defend our homeland and our way of life, to ensure that enduring American ideals are preserved for generations to come. Our efforts in Afghanistan represent this kind of response; our nation was attacked on 9/11, and the threat of Muslim extremists is still keen. It was imperative that we respond.

But Iraq is different. We invaded that country without provocation. Oh, to be sure, we got rid of a despot and a bully in Saddam Hussein. But it was an act of aggression based on a combination of hubris and bad intelligence -- apparently some people in the Bush administration knew just how bad that information was even before they sent our troops into harms way, and embroiled the nation in this mess. Truthfully, I'm dreading the information that's going to come to light once this administration leaves town -- the tell all's, the files declassified, their arrogance exposed in the sunshine of a (hopefully) Democratic administration. We have only scratched the surface.

But the lies and half-truths of this administration in no way diminish the honor and service of those who answered the call. If anything, it paints a vivid dichotomy between those motivated by unspeakable hubris and those who loyally and selflessly serve their country. Our nation owes them a debt of gratitude, and we also have the responsibility to care for them when they come home -- to see them through whatever physical or psychological wounds they've sustained while doing their jobs. The Veterans Administration, the Defense Department, Homeland Security -- whatever agencies involved -- as well as Congress need to pony up the resources and programs to ensure our servicemembers get the best care, the best assistance, through a system that is compassionate rather than suspicious of their condition.

As for the rest of us, we'd do well to remember that freedom isn't free, and there is a price being paid by our neighbors -- who stoically complain little and pray a lot. What they need from us is more than simple words of respect, they need action. This election season, ask your candidates how they intend to address the war in Iraq. But also ask them about funding for the Veterans Administration and associated agencies serving our military, about long-term rehabilitation for vets and college aid for kids who lost their parents in the war. Ask them about homeless vets, military families going broke and losing their homes as their reservist spouses are overseas, and how we can help reservists when they come home who often don't get full military benefits. It's our duty as citizens to ask these questions, and our responsibility as neighbors to demand answers -- and action. It is the very least we can do.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

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