Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Cost of War

We do not think much about the cost of war. A few years after the end of the latest military engagement, we erect war monuments—plaques with names, statues of soldiers, civic buildings. We call our soldiers heroes, especially if they did not come home and that's about it.
But a spate of recent news stories about the Iraq war cannot be ignored. They force us to face up to the horrendous cost of this war. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, 4328 soldiers are officially listed as killed, 31,431 officially listed as injured. Unofficial numbers for injuries are much higher. Many of the injured have brain damage. We need to pause a minute with these numbers to consider that for every soldier killed, there is a grieving family—parents, brothers and sisters, often grandparents, uncles and aunts. Friends and neighbors are affected as well. Many soldiers killed are fathers and mothers who leave their spouse behind and often also their children. More than 900 children in the US lost one parent in Iraq. The war memorials we erect so diligently do not mention the wide swath of grief left by each death or the lives seriously affected by the loss of a son, a life companion, or a parent.
Nor do they remember the soldiers who attempt suicide after their return—estimated currently at 1000 a month. They may have returned with their bodies intact, but their spirit is suffering profoundly; they do not want to continue living. Others cannot find their way back into civilian lives with jobs and families. They end up homeless, asking for money at the stoplight or offering to work for food, shunned even by the citizens who like to speak of veterans as heroes.
Recent stories report that children of soldiers are seeking psychiatric help in increasing numbers. The total number of outpatient mental health visits for children increased from 1 million in 2003 to 2 million in 2008. The marriages of returning veterans are more likely to founder; family violence is more common in the families of servicemen and women, as is alcoholism, drug abuse and child neglect. Each of these has long run effects that last throughout the lives of military children and may well leave its mark on the grandchildren of men and women in the military today.
The human cost of war is inestimable. The cost in dollars is more easily counted up. It now stands at $687 billion for the Iraq war. The cost of the war in Afghanistan is approaching $200 million. In the seven years of the war thousands upon thousands of American children went hungry; many Americans died a premature death because they could not afford to see a doctor or, if they did, could not buy the medicines to control blood pressure or keep diabetes under control. Many led wretched lives because there are not enough places in clinics to help sufferers overcome drug and alcohol addiction. Many young people could not get the education to develop their intelligence and other aptitudes because there was no money for scholarships or cheap public education. If we had been able to use those $687 billion dollars to improve medical care, education, rehabilitation and nutrition programs many Americans would have better lives today. Remember also that drug addicts also have families who suffer with their addict members; hungry children develop more slowly and thus their lives are impaired as long as they live. Early deaths spread sorrow in families of the victims. Few remain untouched by the cost of war.
Now comes the latest story from Colorado. In the area around Fort Carson, 14 murders have been committed by returning soldiers. Members of combat units that suffered particularly high casualties in Iraq were more likely to murder innocent civilians here—including a couple about to put up a sign for a garage sale.
So far we are thinking about American losses. The devastation of lives in Iraq is much worse. Here the numbers are much less precise. But the count is definitely above 110,000. Some estimates of war orphans in Iraq are as high as 5 million. Five million young people whose entire lives will be burdened by their early loss and the hard lives awaiting orphans.
An avalanche of terrifying facts forces us to consider the cost of war more carefully and to face up to the multiple destructive repercussions of war. The war in Iraq spreads its evil influences throughout Iraq and throughout our own country and those of our allies not just today and tomorrow but for generations to come. Is anything worth such enormous sacrifices?