Does recognition of the burden of war require support of war policy?

By | March 2, 2011

A recent news story in the Washington Post relates the angry claim by a grieving father of a dead serviceman that Americans are largely indifferent to the sacrifice that military families make in our current wars.

Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice

Before he addressed the crowd that had assembled in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency ballroom last November, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly had one request. “Please don’t mention my son,” he asked the Marine Corps officer introducing him
Four days earlier, 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly , 29, had stepped on a land mine while leading a platoon of Marines in southern Afghanistan. He was killed instantly.
Without once referring to his son’s death, the general delivered a passionate and at times angry speech about the military’s sacrifices and its troops’ growing sense of isolation from society.
“Their struggle is your struggle,” he told the ballroom crowd of former Marines and local business people. “If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight – our country – these people are lying to themselves. . . . More important, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation.”
Kelly is the most senior U.S. military officer to lose a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan. He was giving voice to a growing concern among soldiers and Marines: The American public is largely unaware of the price its military pays to fight the United States’ distant conflicts. Less than 1 percent of the population serves in uniform at a time when the country is engaged in one of the longest periods of sustained combat in its history.
By Greg Jaffe –Washington Post Staff Writer, March 2, 2011

There are several loosely related issues in this story. First, undoubtedly the U.S. population at large is largely unaware of the real human cost of our military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of us do not risk life and limb in those parts of the world; nor do we have close family members who serve. But military families do, and sacrifice plenty for our government’s war policy. They are the ones who carry the real burden of these wars. And to be sure, most Americans do not give much attention to the cost in human lives for the Iraqi and Afghanistan civilian victims of our military intervention and the fighting in those countries. Americans are more interested in the cost of gasoline, the economic recession, the adventures and misadventures of celebrities, and the results of the latest Super Bowl game, than they are in human suffering, sacrifice, and death in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.

But not all Americans fall into this category: that of not caring about the latest, questionable military policy of our government. Some of us do care and are deeply disturbed by the unfair burden that some people have to bear, when our government leaders and politicians decide war is good policy.

Who among us does not feel some sympathy for the Lt. General Kelly and the loss of his son in Afghanistan? Who among us does not appreciate the service and sacrifice of those military persons who serve and risk their lives in our recent wars: Iraq and Afghanistan? But with due respect to his grievous loss, General Kelly is nonetheless wrong when he declares that one cannot appreciate the service and sacrifice of our military personnel without supporting the cause for which they fight. Who can seriously believe that anti-war people have no compassion for the suffering and sacrifice of those who do the actual fighting? I fall into this category of opposition to the policy but yet appreciate the sacrifice of those who are compelled to serve in combat, and I’ll bet many of you fall into this category also. I don’t feel that I am lying either to myself or to others.

It is a gross oversimplification to say that appreciation for those carrying out their duty as military personnel requires that one support the government policy that sent them there; and it is another gross oversimplification to hold that those who serve in such places as Iraq or Afghanistan support the government’s policy that put them there. Both statements are false. There are many counter-examples: those how condemn the war policy but appreciate the work and sacrifice of the soldiers who are directly affected by that policy. And there are plenty of counter-examples of officers and enlisted men/women who, while serving effectively in a war zone, question and even reject their government’s policy.

A favored ploy of the promoters of war policy is to find some excuse for military intervention in some foreign land; and then they argue that Congress and the American people must support the military policy because doing otherwise is failure to support our fighting men and women who are sacrificing so much on behalf of the war effort. But this is just one tactic by which the promoters of war keep the rest of us from questioning or scrutinizing the policies and thinking behind the military intervention.

What, after all, is the cause for which our military fights in Afghanistan? What was the cause for which so many sacrificed so much in Iraq? In the case of Iraq, any knowledgeable person is aware that the “causes” for which the GW Bush administration committed an invasion of Iraq were either false causes or exaggerated (Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction; false claims about a connection between Saddam’s government and Al Qaeda). In the case of Afghanistan, the apparent cause for which the U.S. fights has something to do with the continuing war on terrorism and the need to deny Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda any refuge in that country; a joint cause is the fight to deny the Taliban control of the country. None of these connect clearly with a defense of American or actions necessary to our national security. In short, we can reject or have serious doubts about the “cause” for which our people are sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan while sympathizing with families like that of Lt. General Kelly and feeling sadness over the loss of lives like that of his son, 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, the lives of many other young servicemen and the tragedy that is brought on the people of those countries.

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