Will 2020 signal an end to America's endless wars? Don't count on it

We claim to honor our troops and venerate their sacrifice — but do Americans really think about the cost of war?

Published January 2, 2020 9:15AM (EST)

United States Marines from Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Marines watch the explosion after calling in an airstrike during a gunbattle as part of an operation to clear the area of insurgents near Musa Qaleh, in northern Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
United States Marines from Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Marines watch the explosion after calling in an airstrike during a gunbattle as part of an operation to clear the area of insurgents near Musa Qaleh, in northern Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

This article originally appeared at Insider NJ. Used by permission.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Goble, 33, of Westwood, New Jersey, was an Army Special Forces soldier. He died from wounds he suffered in Afghanistan two days before Christmas, and just weeks before he was scheduled to return home. He leaves behind his girlfriend, Jennifer Albuquerque, and their six-year-old daughter.

Goble’s combat death is the second for that region of northeastern New Jersey, known as Pascack Valley. In 2010, Marine Sgt. Christopher Hrbek was also killed in combat in Afghanistan.

Every death is a world ending.

Since 9/11, at least 130 New Jersey families have lost a loved one to combat in America’s until-further-notice war on terrorism. Unlike our past wars, in which we conscripted Americans from every walk of life, in our 21st-century brave new world of "voluntary" enlistment war-fighting is relegated to just another lifestyle choice.

After the news of Goble’s death, elected officials expressed their remorse and honored Goble’s patriotic service. With Gov. Phil Murphy out of state, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver ordered the state’s flags to fly at half-mast.

For years that’s how it’s gone, to the point where such news has become rote, even robotic.

Post 9/11, for our local elected officials to offer any criticism of America’s war on terrorism would be to run the risk of being considered unpatriotic and disrespectful of the memory of the close to 3,000 Americans who died on Sept. 11, 2001, and the thousands who have died from WTC-related illnesses since.

While our leaders said they had "learned the lesson" from Vietnam about engaging in wars we did not plan to win, the reality appears otherwise. Eighteen years after we started our post 9/11 operation both Iraq and Afghanistan remain strife-ridden, unstable geo-political disasters.

Over the past week, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, in the heart of the heavily fortified Green Zone, became the target of massive violent protests, and was briefly occupied by pro-Iranian militants.

In 2018, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction reported that in the U.S.-backed government in Kabul was increasingly losing control of the country to the Taliban, dropping from controlling 72 percent of Afghan territory in 2015 to just 56 percent in 2018.

Meanwhile Brown University’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs reports that the close to 7,000 American soldiers and 7,800 U.S. contractors who have died in 18 years of war are only a fraction of the close to half-million lives lost, including those of 250,000 civilians, including women and children caught in the crossfire.

“In addition to those killed by direct acts violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions,” reported the Intercept.

What started as a "laser-like" focus on Afghanistan, has now devolved into a global operation that has extended to include 76 countries, or 40 percent of the planet’s nations.

No doubt local and state officials believe they need to "stay in their lane" and that it’s up to federal elected officials to keep a critical eye on the nation’s longest overseas combat deployment.

Unlike the Vietnam era, in which local draft boards and the broader population were compelled by mandatory conscription to have real skin in the game, there’s a major disconnect between the sacrifice of military families and the broader civilian population.

We are blithely unaware of the impact of repeated combat deployments on our military families. When the Pentagon reports that last year it recorded the highest suicide rate among active-duty personnel in six years, that’s just another data point without context.

I saw evidence of this kind of disconnect between our military families and the broader American experience back in 2004 when I covered a National Guard pancake breakfast at an armory in Westfield, New Jersey, for WNYC, the New York public radio station.

A big crowd had converged on the armory to flip, serve and eat pancakes, all to raise money for the families of National Guard members bound for Iraq. At that point 65 percent of the total Army National Guard was mobilized in the biggest deployment since World War II.

At $6 a plate, the pancake breakfast cleared $17,000. All of that was needed to keep the lights on and the mortgage current in the homes of some weekend warriors turned full-time combat soldiers.

Then-New Jersey National Guard Gen. Glenn Reith told me at the time that for one in five Guard families, activation meant real economic hardship. “Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that if you are on active duty you have a federal installation where all your needs and cares are taken care of,” he said. “Our families are out in all the communities and because of that they don’t have the same structure to support them on a day-to-day basis.”

At that point in 2004, New Jersey had lost 32 residents in combat.

A wife of a longtime guardsman ready for deployment told me her household was already subsidizing a war effort she thought was misguided and poorly planned. She did not want me to use her name.

“I know that my husband has needed many things and has had to purchase them himself, meaning binoculars that they were told they should have. He called me up and asked me to look them up on the internet,” she said. “They were $700 binoculars that he had to purchase himself. He called me up another day and said, 'I need you to look up a site on the internet.' I pulled it up and it was a site for scopes for machine guns. I said, ‘You've got to be kidding me.’ It was an item between $1,000 and $2,000 — that’s a lot of pancakes.”

Over the 14 years since that breakfast, our forward deployment has greatly widened and reached an unprecedented scale. When four American soldiers were killed in combat in Niger in October of 2017, even U.S. senators admitted they had no clue that we even had soldiers in that country.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in a CNN interview that he had not known about the deployment to Niger. “I think there’s a lot of work that both parties and both branches of government need to do,” he said. “Not only to stay more informed but to focus on why we’re there and what happened to get to the bottom of this.”

As the Washington Post recently reported, this lack of meaningful congressional oversight was accompanied by a massive campaign of deception by the Pentagon itself about just what our country was accomplishing on the ground in Afghanistan.

With the Dec. 9 publication of the “Afghanistan Papers,” after a three-year legal battle with the government, the Washington Post has made public hundreds of interviews with the key people directly involved with shaping our policy in that country.

“With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed, and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation,” the Post reported. “The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.”

To this day, the U.S. government has not done a comprehensive  accounting of how much money was spent on the war in Afghanistan. Estimates by the Costs of War Project at Brown University put it at close to a trillion dollars, excluding money spent by the CIA or long-term costs related to medical care for veterans.

John Sopko, who led the inspector general for Afghan reconstruction office, which conducted the “Lessons Learned” interviews, told the Post that these interviews documented that “the American people have constantly been lied to.”

This is the same government that justified the expansion of the War on Terror into Iraq by falsely linking that country to the 9/11 attack and claiming that Saddam Hussein's government had weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.

Our open-ended campaign, sometimes sold to us as “nation building,” has actually helped spawn the most serious refugee crisis since the Second World War, with tens of millions of families uprooted from their homes seeking safe haven from the insecurity of never-ending armed conflict.

Our current administration's remedy is to seal our borders.

Our drone warfare continues on autopilot.

“We live in a country where if you want to go bomb somebody, there’s remarkably little discussion about how much it might cost,” argues Andrew Bacevich, a professor emeritus at Boston University and West Point graduate who spent  23 years in the military. “But then you have a discussion about whether or not we can assist people who are suffering, then suddenly we become very cost conscious.”

In 2016, during the presidential debates between Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Afghanistan was never mentioned.

As we turn the page into 2020, do we have the clarity to see the toll our never-ending war has taken, not just on our military families, but on the places around the world where we send our troops.

We can’t afford to keep leaving these decisions up to Washington.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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