(First published in the Gettysburg Times, 5/10/2013)
“Thirty-five million deaths leave an empty place at only one family table.” – News commentator Eric Sevareid, (1912-1992) in a radio essay on the 25th anniversary of the start of World War Two.
With less than one percent of our warrior-age offspring actually in the military force, the odds greatly favor that a picture on the evening news is all most of us will know about someone who has died or been wounded in battle.
It is easy to think the war in Afghanistan, virtual static beneath whatever car crash or blustery foreign leader takes top billing each night, has been going on a very long time. An editor for ABC World News declared the war in Afghanistan “the longest war in our nation’s history, surpassing the conflict in Vietnam.” That was June 2010. Let’s do the math.
In 1950, then-President Harry S. Truman authorized $15 million in military aid to begin official U.S. involvement in a war that, until then, had officially been a French effort to control South Vietnam against Soviet and Chinese-backed North Vietnam. In the ensuing years, we sprayed Agent Orange on the countryside, used B-52 bombers to destroy even more real estate and people, and saw a future presidential candidate imprisoned and tortured for five and-a-half years.
In 1970, National Guardsmen, called to quell a student protest against the war, killed four students and wounded eight others on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University. Then-President Richard Nixon noted that “when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.”
In 1973, a cease fire finally was signed in Paris. Do the math.
Vietnam involved everyone. Initially, it was a place where we would halt the spread of Communism, blocking the dominos that otherwise would topple over onto U.S. soul. Virtually every young man over 18 served in some branch of the military, and when it was over, some 50,000 of our male offspring had died during what singing duo Simon and Garfunkel called “their senior trip.”
Almost 20 years later, the daughter of a friend graduated high school and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, largely for the education benefits. A year after that, in 1991, Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and our president, George H.W. Bush took us to Desert Storm to evict the tyrant. Stephanie was pretty sure she was bound for the killing fields, and very sure that’s not what she signed up for.
The last few years of the Vietnam War were marked by young men burning their draft cards – government issued tickets proving they had registered for the draft (for those too young to remember). They marched against the war, and many of them went to Canada rather than risk death in what they thought was a theater of interest only to arms makers.
When one of them went to Vietnam in an airplane and came home in a body bag, he was on the evening news and whole neighborhoods knew of the family’s loss, likely because it was not the first “casualty of war” in the neighborhood.
It has been only a dozen years since a band of malcontents stole three jetliners and killed nearly 4,000 of our country-folk, giving us reason to launch war into Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the publicity that got us there has died off. Now the War in Afghanistan is being held in secret. Secret weapons and secret “special operations” glorify Seal Team 6, whose members are secret. There are no draft cards being burned because if a lad fresh out of high school doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t have to.
Unmanned jets, their young pilots safely someplace in Kansas, launch missiles into the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, burning through human life and treasure in amounts virtually impossible to comprehend, while the evening news chatters about the national obesity epidemic, and Reese Witherspoon’s arrest video going viral.
Reinstituting the draft might be a good idea, this time including the women. Maybe that is what will be required for us to notice that the only profit made is by the purveyors of weaponry, the gears of the dollar bill counters lubricated by the “ultimate sacrifice” of our youthful offspring.
Or maybe, while no one is watching, we will leave Afghanistan for Syria.