Op-Ed

What happened to shared responsibility?

I was discussing with a close friend in 2008 that I was headed for my third deployment with the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army Reserves. He responded with a phrase that resonated with me since: "Outside of you, I have no investment in this war."

He was referring to the fact he had no immediate family in the military, and the war had no impact on his day-to-day existence. That drew me to contrast the overwhelming commitment of our country during World War II to this seemingly minimal impact of our current war.

WWII enjoyed broad popular support after the sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941. Ironically, there had been a strong isolationist sentiment in our country in the 1930s, but this was erased quickly. A wave of volunteers flooded recruiting offices.

But only a mass draft would suffice for a global war. Over 11 million men were in uniform, out of a total population of 140 million. Any and all were expected to serve; the rich with the poor, the intellectual with the poorly educated. It was a true citizens' army; a military-aged man out of uniform was shunned by society.

The civilian population also shared in carrying this grave responsibility; most had a loved one in uniform, and all bore the impact of rationing of such necessities as food and gas.

Periods of massive causalities occurred: over 1,000 Marines killed and another 2,500 wounded, from a single division, in three days of savage fighting on Tarawa, in November 1943; 10,000 casualties on June 6, 1944, during D-Day landings in Normandy. An estimated 405,000 died while in service, the second-largest loss during all of our nation's wars.

The majority of those serving in Congress had a loved one in uniform. The president's son, James Roosevelt, was a Marine officer who landed behind enemy lines in the Pacific. The former ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, had one son killed in the skies of Europe, and another served with distinction as a naval officer commanding a PT boat and would later serve as our 35th president. The central concept was a shared responsibility. Contrast this to the current conflict begun on Sept. 11, 2001.

Again, it was a surprise attack, and the victims were mainly civilians. Righteous indignation was felt, but there was no formal declaration of war. Many volunteered but were only a smattering of the total population.

Initially, there was broad support for the war, especially during the retaliatory attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. As the conflict shifted to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, support quickly waned. No draft occurred, in spite of significant demands on a military fighting a two-front war thousands of miles away.

The number serving remained relatively static, at about 2.5 million out of a population of about 295 million. Currently, the portion carrying this ultimate gamble represents less than 1 percent of our population. Even extending the burden to immediate families of those who serve, we still have less than 10 percent who have a tangible link to the conflict. Many of those who serve are now on their sixth or seventh tour since 2001.

The casualty figures pale in comparison to WWII; over 5,000 killed and five times that number wounded. Very few days, blessedly, have seen mass casualties. Yet nearly 200,000 have suffered concussive brain injuries. The long-range impact of this "silent" injury will be significant. The post-Civil War era was marked by the empty sleeve; I am afraid this war will be marked by the empty stare.

The civilian population feels little day-to-day impact. There is no restriction on travel and no impairment of our liberties. Outside of a military base, seeing someone in uniform is an aberration.

Few in the top levels of government have a son or daughter serving. I suspect the finger on the pen that orders one to deploy would be looser if the bullet sent were marked with the serial number of your first born.

Raising problems without offering solutions is worse than baying at the moon. So, I offer the following, perhaps unrealistic, solutions:

■ We cannot tie the hands of the president from making the decision to initiate a war, but no war should persist without the consent of Congress. The president can order a conflict but cannot fund it, long-term. If the popular will does not support the war and it goes on undeclared, then do not fund it. The logistical pipeline is well enough stocked that troops should not suffer excess risk and a safe withdrawal can be made.

■ Let all suffer the burden, at least financially. The cost of a war should be budget neutral. Increased taxes and reduced services would be unpalatable, to most, but the response to such limitations would quickly prove whether broad-based and long-term popular support exists.

■ If we are to send our young men and women into war, then let the ranks represent the diffuse strata of our society. Our military is overrepresented by members of lower socio-economic groups. The only way to level this playing field is to re-enact a draft during times of declared war. This would be highly unpopular, but it would quickly prove whether there is support for a conflict.

The net results of embracing these suggestions would likely be fewer wars or at least fewer sustained wars. So be it; I have seen the consequences of war firsthand. One can stanch a wound once it has occurred, but the spilled blood can never be retrieved.

  Comments