Eliot Cohen’s claim that most Americans have no right to be war-weary is an insult to anyone who cares about our men and women in uniform, and the other costs we pay by being at war. (More)
Beirut. Grenada. Panama. Kuwait. Somalia. Haiti. Bosnia. Serbia. Sudan. Kosovo. Iraq (five times). Afghanistan. Libya (twice). The foregoing is a list of the places where the U.S. has taken direct military action – through missile strikes, aerial assaults, and/or troops on the ground – over the past 30 years. Add drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and our arming the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, and it becomes clear how extensive U.S. military involvement in the rest of the world has been over the past three decades. Some, perhaps even much, of this involvement has been necessary, just, and/or strategically smart. But leaving those issues aside, the simple reality is that our nation has been at war, in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the past 12 years, and used our military might quite frequently even before that.
Given that reality, it is not surprising that, when the issue of chemical weapons usage in Syria came up, many Americans recoiled at the suggestion of yet another round of military strikes that ran the risk of escalating into larger war. The simple fact is that a large portion of the American people are simply tired of war. And, even if you think that military strikes against Syria would have been justified and/or reasonable, it is difficult to dispute that a feeling of weariness is a rational and understandable response to a proposal for the U.S. to launch yet another military action overseas.
Incredibly, however, some have disputed the notion that Americans are ever entitled to feel war weariness. For example, in a disturbing example of the thinking behind the neoconservatives who brought us the disaster of the most recent Iraq War, Eliot A. Cohen had an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Obama Doesn’t Get to Say He is Tired of War.” Mr. Cohen is a member of the warmongering organization the Project for a New American Century and was a loud cheerleader for both the Iraq War and for overthrowing Iran’s government. Because that is something that worked out so well for us when we did it back in the 1950s.
While the title of his op-ed refers only to President Obama, the op-ed itself makes clear that Mr. Cohen thinks that no one besides soldiers and their families can be weary of war:
The families of the fallen are entitled to war-weariness. So are those wounded in body or spirit, and their loved ones. The mother who has sent her son to war has a right to war-weariness, as does the father who prepares to send his daughter to battle again and again. But for the great mass of the American public, for their leaders and the elites who shape public opinion, “war-weariness” is unearned cant, unworthy of a serious nation and dangerous in a violent world.
The average American has not served in the armed forces, as a diplomat or intelligence agent in a war zone. Neither have his or her children. No one has raised our taxes to pay for war. Americans can change the channel if they find the images too disturbing – though our teenagers’ violent video games and gory movies are infinitely more graphic than what would be shown on CNN or Fox News.
Mr. Cohen is certainly correct that we haven’t been asked to pay more taxes to pay for war, though it is beyond hypocritical for him to make that point given that it is his fellow conservatives who have blocked virtually any attempt to raise taxes. Mr. Cohen is also correct that military families are most justified in feeling tired of war. But his contention that the rest of us have no right to feel weary of the U.S. going to war and that we should just “change the channel” if we do not want to think about war is ridiculous and offensive.
A good rejoinder to Mr. Cohen’s execrable op-ed can be seen in Frank Bruni’s column in the New York Times this past Sunday titled What War Means:
Our country sent more than two million men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 6,500 of them are dead. Tens of thousands were physically injured, including some 1,500 amputees. Iraq and Afghanistan were minefields, literally and metaphorically, rife with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. They were easy places to lose a limb.
Of the two-million-plus Americans who spent time there, “studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder,” writes David Finkel in his beautiful and heartbreaking new book, Thank You for Your Service, which was excerpted in The New Yorker recently and will be published next month. “Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.”
Pause here for a few seconds. Take that in. Half a million Americans carry around a darkness they didn’t used to, because when our country went to war, they, unlike most of us, actually had to go.
As Mr. Bruni explains, we must keep in mind these impacts to hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans as we debate whether to enter another military action. These people and their spouses and children are our neighbors, friends, relatives, and co-workers, and we have a moral duty to value and factor in the horrible impacts that war can have on our fellow Americans before we send them to fight on our behalf. And as part of doing so, it is more than reasonable for any of us to decide that the loss is too high to support further military action or that we should at least be much more cautious in using the military option than we have been over the past 30 years.
The massive financial cost of war also gives any American the right to feel weary of war. Direct expenditures on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have totaled $1.4 trillion over the past 12 years. Adding in related costs, such as veterans’ medical and disability payments to date and in the future, and interest on the debt that has been incurred to pay for these wars could bring the total cost to $3.9 trillion or higher. At a time of cutbacks to basic government services and attacks on programs such as Head Start and Medicare because we allegedly do not have enough money for them, it is beyond reasonable for Americans to be weary of war and support focusing our resources here at home rather than on more military adventures overseas.
It is important to note that war-weariness does not, of course, mean that the U.S. should or must withdraw from the world. Simply because one is weary of war does not mean that you don’t think there are certain situations where military action is still necessary. And we could make as much, or perhaps even more, progress through diplomacy, encouraging international cooperation, and humanitarian support at a much lower financial and human cost.
Mr. Cohen’s rejection of war weariness suggests essentially that the American public and our Commander in Chief must be willing to support any proposed military action that comes down the pike with no concern for the sacrifice of our men and women who fight our wars, and with no consideration of whether there are better ways for us to spend our nation’s limited financial resources. That approach may benefit neocons who seem to have never seen a war they did not want to fight. But it does not benefit the American people or the men and women in uniform who fight the wars that those neocons promote.