America's post-9/11 debacle: An honest reflection on Memorial Day

We should pay respects today to soldiers who died. But patriotism also means reexamining our failed military policy

Published May 26, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

  (AP/Matt York/Reuters/Jason Reed)
(AP/Matt York/Reuters/Jason Reed)

Early this month at the National 9/11 Museum opening ceremony, participants recounted the litany of loss that day when nearly 3,000 innocent civilians were murdered. In all the reporting on the opening, there was much discussion about the challenge the curators faced in how to present the Sept. 11 narrative.

Thirteen years later it's still hard to wrap one’s head around the magnitude of the loss experienced that day. One day, loved ones were here -- the next they were not.

Still harder to comprehend: the staggering global bleed-out since the U.S. decided to wage a global war on terrorism in response. More than 6,700 American soldiers have lost their lives and more than 57,000 have been wounded. By some expert estimates, as many as 200,000 of the soldiers that served in Iraq and Afghanistan are living with some form of traumatic brain injury.

And that’s just "our" people.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers have lost their lives. In Afghanistan, during the years of U.S. involvement, tens of thousands of civilians were killed. In 2009 alone, the United Nations reported that 2,412 civilians were killed, and attributed 68 percent of the fatalities to anti-government actions and 23 percent to international forces. In Iraq, the estimate of the number of civilians killed as a direct result of armed conflict has been reported as close to 140,000.

But war can be lethal to civilians in truly collateral ways, like the increased incidence of water-borne disease as a consequence of the loss of basic public infrastructure like sewage treatment. In 2006 the Washington Post reported on the findings of a team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists who were working under the auspices of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. The team concluded that Iraq had experienced 655,000 “excessive deaths” as a consequence of the U.S.-led invasion. That number has to be higher now.

And just as with the Sept. 11 deaths, each life lost has its own painful reverberations that are felt into the next generation and beyond. According to a 2012 UNICEF survey of Iraqi households, between 800,000 and a million Iraqi children lost one or both of their parents as a consequence of the war we started under the pretense that Iraq was in on Sept. 11 -- and that we needed to secure Iraqi nuclear weapons that somehow we just never found.

Back in 2011, the Congressional Research Service estimated that from after Sept. 11, 2001, up through FY 2011 the U.S. had spent $1.283 trillion on military operations like Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Noble Eagle and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Subsequent scholarship by professor Neta Crawford from Boston University released last year updated the cost estimate to $3.6 trillion, which includes, as it must, the $754 billion we have to come up with to cover the cost of long-term medical and disability payments we must make to keep our commitments to our wounded warriors up through 2053.

While in past war efforts, Congress and the president saw fit to offset the spike in war-related expenses by raising taxes, post-Sept. 11, the Bush administration insisted on cutting taxes, which required the federal government to borrow to fund the two-front war and reconstruction efforts. Those borrowing costs for these overseas contingency operations will add a trillion dollars to the national debt by 2023. Kind of puts the recent cuts to food stamps in perspective.

So just what did we get for all of the human suffering and profligate spending?

By the estimates recently released by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, much of the $103 billion of U.S. reconstruction aid was lost to graft and corruption in that country. In the Iraqi reconstruction efforts billions are unaccounted for as well, but according to the final report from the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, we will never really know exactly how much because the U.S. lacked even the most basic financial controls. “Because of these deficiencies in record keeping, the disposition of billions of dollars for projects remains unknown because the U.S. government agencies involved in the reconstruction effort did not maintain project information in any uniform or comprehensive manner,” the final report concluded.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, to this day, government graft and corruption is considered a greater threat to civil stability than the insurgent violence that is now on the upswing in both beleaguered nations more than a decade after the United States invaded them to save them and bring them democracy.

According to the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit global think tank, as the U.S. and its partners wind down operations in Afghanistan, the inability of the central government to pick up the slack is becoming increasingly evident. “The overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks. On going withdrawals of international soldiers have generally coincided with a deterioration of Kabul’s reach in outlying districts,” ICG observed.

Earlier this year, in the same month that President Obama used his State of the Union address to tell the American people the war in Iraq was over, al-Qaida forces were in the process of retaking Fallujah. Back in November of 2004, Fallujah was the scene of the most brutal and deadly urban combat the U.S. military had faced since the Vietnam War. More than 50 American soldiers were killed and 425 wounded. Close to 1,000 Iraqi civilians were killed while the battle for control of the city, famous for its mosques, saw dozens of them destroyed. When the residents of Fallujah who had fled before the battle returned, they found thousands of homes and businesses leveled.

To this day, even after the U.S. exit, Iraqi civilians continue to pay an awful price for the chronic violence that still plagues their nation with dozens of terrorist bombings being carried out every month.

In past wars, when we have declared them over, they were -- and we had a ticker-tape parade. After World War II, the ensuing peace was a tangible dividend as places like Japan and Germany were rebuilt and the whole world seemed to prosper.

Now it appears in our over-reliance on violence to stop terrorism, we have helped proliferate it. More than a decade after we started the global war on terror, it appears, despite our expanding the use of lethal drones to several other countries, and our taking out of Col. Gadhafi, the world is less safe and there are more places verging on the precipice of failed nation-state status. Just survey Africa.

In reality the true cost of the U.S. “war on terror” extends well beyond the loss of human life and national treasure because it cast a cloud over our future. Images of Abu Ghraib and wedding parties we accidentally incinerated in our drone strikes exist to inspire fresh recruits to rise up against the “great satan.” Our massive global and domestic spying has done major damage to our international reputation. Allies that once trusted us can’t help but have second thoughts.

Memorial Day is a fitting day to pay respects to our soldiers who have died in the line of the duty we assigned them. But aren’t the living obligated to hold our political leadership accountable for the results? Is it unpatriotic to ask if the U.S. post-Sept. 11 reaction has made the world more secure and safer?

We can't drone our way to global peace and security -- yet we drone on. We desperately need some new thinking on this. 9/11 was an awful tragedy, but so has been our response.

By Robert Hennelly

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