Sometimes, as I consider America’s never-ending wars of this century, I can’t help thinking of those lyrics from the Edwin Starr song, “(War, huh) Yeah! (What is it good for?) Absolutely nothing!” I mean, remind me, what good have those disastrous, failed, still largely ongoing conflicts done for this country? Or for you? Or for me?
For years and years, what came to be known as America’s “war on terror” (and later just its “forever wars”) enjoyed remarkable bipartisan support in Congress, not to say the country at large. Over nearly two decades, four presidents from both parties haven’t hesitated to exercise their power to involve our military in all sorts of ways in at least 85 countries around the world in the name of defeating “terrorism” or “violent extremism.” Such interventions have included airstrikes against armed groups in seven countries, direct combat against such groups in 12 countries, military exercises in 41 countries, and training or assistance to local military, police, or border patrol units in 79 countries. And that’s not even to mention the staggering number of U.S. military bases around the world where counterterrorism operations can be conducted, the massive arms sales to foreign governments, or all the additional deployments of this country’s Special Operations forces.
Providing the thinnest of legal foundations for all of this have been two ancient acts of Congress. The first was the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that allowed the president to act against “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” It led, of course, to the disastrous war in Afghanistan. It was passed in the week after those attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. That bill’s lone opponent in the House, Representative Barbara Lee (D–CA), faced death threats from the public for her vote, though she stood by it, fearing all too correctly that such a law would sanction endless wars abroad (as, of course, it did).
The second AUMF passed on October 15, 2002, by a 77-23 vote in the Senate. Under the false rationale that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction (it didn’t), that AUMF gave President George W. Bush and his crew a green light to invade Iraq and topple its regime. Last month, the House finally voted 268-161 (including 49 Republican yes votes) to repeal the second of those authorizations.
Thinking back to when America’s “forever wars” first began, it’s hard to imagine how we could still be fighting in Iraq and Syria under the same loose justification of a war on terror almost two decades later or that the 2001 AUMF, untouched by Congress, still stands, providing the fourth president since the war on terror began with an excuse for actions of all sorts.
I remember watching in March 2003 from my home in northern California as news stations broadcast bombs going off over Baghdad. I’d previously attended protests around San Francisco, shouting my lungs out about the potentially disastrous consequences of invading a country based on what, even then, seemed like an obvious lie. Meanwhile, little did I know that the Afghan War authorization I had indeed supported, as a way to liberate the women of that country and create a democracy from an abusive state, would still be disastrously ongoing nearly 20 years later.
Nor did I imagine that, in 2011, having grasped my mistake when it came to the Afghan War, I would co-found Brown University’s Costs of War Project; nor that, about a decade into that war, I would be treating war-traumatized veterans and their families as a psychotherapist, even as I became the spouse of a Navy submariner. I would spend the second decade of the war on terror shepherding my husband and our two young children through four military moves and countless deployments, our lives breathless and harried by the outlandish pace of the disastrous forever (and increasingly wherever) wars that had come to define America’s global presence in the twenty-first century.
Amid all the talk about Joe Biden’s Afghan withdrawal decision which came “from the gut,” according to an official close to the president, it’s easy to forget that this country continues to fight some of those very same wars.
What Keeps Us Safe?
Take, for example, late last month when President Biden ordered “defensive” airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against reportedly Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups. Those groups were thought to be responsible for a series of at least five drone attacks on weapons storage and operational bases used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. The June American airstrikes supposedly killed four militia members, though there have been reports that one hit a housing complex, killing a child and wounding three other civilians (something that has yet to be verified). An unnamed “senior administration official” explained: “We have a responsibility to demonstrate that attacking Americans carries consequences, and that is true whether or not those attacks inflict casualties.” He did not, however, explain what those American troops were doing in the first place at bases in Iraq and Syria.
Note that such an act was taken on presidential authority alone, with Congress thoroughly sidelined as it has been since it passed those AUMFs so long ago. To be sure, some Americans still argue that such preemptive attacks — and really, any military buildups whatsoever — are precisely what keep Americans safe.
My husband, a Navy officer, has served on three nuclear and ballistic submarines and one battleship. He’s also built a nearly 20-year career on the philosophy that the best instrument of peace, should either of the other two great powers on this planet step out of line, is the concept of mutually-assured destruction — the possibility, that is, that a president would order not airstrikes in Syria, but nuclear strikes somewhere.
He and I argue about this regularly. How, I ask him, can any weapons, no less nuclear ones, ever be seen as instruments of safety? (Though living in the country with the most armed citizens on the planet, I know that this isn’t exactly a winning argument domestically.) I mean, consider the four years we’ve just lived through! Consider the hands our nuclear arsenal was in from 2017 to 2020!
My husband always simply looks at me as if he knows so much more than I do about this. Yet the mere hint of a plan for “peace” based on a world-ending possibility doesn’t exactly put me at ease, nor does a world in which an American president can order airstrikes more or less anywhere on the planet without the backing of anyone else, Congress included.
Every time my husband leaves home to go to some bunker or office where he would be among the first to be sheltered from a nuclear attack, my gut clenches. I feel the hopelessness of what would happen if we ever reached that point of no return where the only option might be to strike back because we ourselves were about to die. It would be a “solution” in which just those in power might remain safe. Meanwhile, our more modest preemptive attacks against other militaries and armed groups in distant lands exact a seldom-recognized toll in blood and treasure.
Every time I hear about preemptive strikes like those President Biden ordered last month in countries we’re not even officially at war with, attacks that were then sanctioned across most of the political spectrum in Washington from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, I wonder: How many people died in those attacks? Whose lives in those target areas were destroyed by uncertainty, fear, and the prospect of long-term anxiety?
In addition, given my work as a therapist with vets, I always wonder how the people who carried out such strikes are feeling right now. I know from experience that just following such life-ending orders can create a sense of internal distress that changes you in ways almost as consequential as losing a limb or taking a bullet.
How Our Wars Kill at Home
For years now, my colleagues and I at the Costs of War Project have struggled to describe and quantify the human costs of America’s never-ending twenty-first-century wars. All told, we’ve estimated that more than 801,000 people died in fighting among U.S., allied, and opposing troops and police forces. And that doesn’t include indirect deaths due to wrecked healthcare systems, malnutrition, the uprooting of populations, and the violence that continues to plague traumatized families in those war zones (and here at home as well).
According to a stunning new report by Boston University’s Ben Suitt, the big killer of Americans engaged in the war on terror has not, in fact, been combat, but suicide, which has so far claimed the lives of 30,177 veterans and active servicemembers. Suicide rates among post-9/11 war veterans are higher than for any cohort of veterans since before World War II. Among those aged 18 to 35 (the oldest of whom weren’t even of voting age when we first started those never-ending wars and the youngest of whom weren’t yet born), the rate has increased by a whopping 76% since 2005.
And if you think that those most injured from their service are the ones coming home after Iraq and Afghanistan, consider this: over the past two decades, suicide rates have increased most sharply among those who have never even been deployed to a combat zone or have been deployed just once.
It’s hard to say why even those who don’t fight are killing themselves so far from America’s distant battlefields. As a psychotherapist who has seen my share of veterans who attempted to kill or — later — succeeded in killing themselves, I can say that two key predictors of that final, desperate act are hopelessness and a sense that you have no legitimate contribution to make to others.
As Suitt points out, about 42% of Americans are now either unaware of the fact that their country is still fighting wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa or think that the war on terror is over. Consider that for a moment. What does it mean to be fighting wars for a country in which a near majority of the population is unaware that you’re even doing so?
As a military spouse whose partner has not been deployed to a combat zone, the burdens of America’s forever wars are still shared by us in concrete ways: more frequent and longer deployments with shorter breaks, more abusive and all-encompassing command structures, and very little clear sense of what it is this country could possibly be fighting for anymore or what the end game might be.
If strikes like the ones President Biden authorized last month reflect anything, it’s that there are few ways — certainly not Congress — of reining in our commander in chief from sending Americans to harm and be harmed.
“Are Soldiers Killers?”
I recall lying awake in 1991, at age 12, my stomach in knots, thinking about the first display of pyrotechnics I can remember, when President George H.W. Bush authorized strikes against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in what became known as the First Gulf War. I told my father then, “I can’t sleep because I think that something bad is going to happen!” I didn’t know what, but those balls of fire falling on Baghdad on my New Jersey TV screen seemed consequential indeed.
Where were they landing? On whom? What was going to happen to our country? My father, who used a minor college football injury to dodge the Vietnam draft and has supported every war since then, shrugged, patted me on the back, and said he didn’t know, but that I shouldn’t worry too much about it.
As a parent myself now, I can still remember what it was like to first consider that people might kill others. As a result, I try to keep a conversation going with my own children as they start to grapple with the existence of evil.
Recently, our six-year-old son, excited to practice his newfound reading skills, came across a World War II military history book in my husband’s office and found photos of both Nazi soldiers and Jewish concentration camp prisoners. He stared at the gaunt bodies and haunted eyes of those prisoners. After a first-grade-level conversation about war and hatred, he suddenly pointed at Nazi soldiers in one photo and asked, “Are soldiers killers?” My husband and I flinched. And then he asked: “Why do people kill?”
Over and over, as such questions arise, I tell my son that people die in wars because so many of us turn our backs on what’s going on in the world we live in. I’m all too aware that we stop paying attention to what elected officials do because we’ve decided we like them (or hate them but can’t be bothered by them). I tell him that we’re going to keep reading the news and talking about it, because my little family, whatever our arguments, agrees that Americans don’t care enough about what war does to the bodies and minds of those who live through it.
Here’s the truth of it: we shouldn’t be spending this much time, money, and blood on conflicts whose end games are left to the discretion of whoever our increasingly shaky electoral system places in this country’s highest office. Until we pressure lawmakers to repeal that 2001 AUMF and end the forever conflicts that have gone with it, America’s wars will ensure that our democracy and the rule of law as we know it will make any promises of peace, self-defense, and justice ring hollow.
Don’t doubt it for a second. War is a cancer on our democracy.
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