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Larry Minear: Some lessons of Boston bombings

from: Providence Journal, May 04, 2013

For an instant, Boston became Baghdad, Cambridge Kabul and Watertown Falluja. The Marathon finish line “looked like a scene from Afghanistan,” recalled an eyewitness. For a public whose disengagement from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has unnerved veterans who put their lives on the line there, the Boston events offers a belated point of entry into what has been done since 9/11 by U.S. officials of both parties to keep us safe. To many Americans, the human toll from the Boston bombings, now placed at five persons dead (including one of the two suspects) and 264 wounded, is stunning.

But incidents of at least that magnitude have been a regular feature of the “9/11 wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq since they began in September 2001 and March 2003, respectively. The scale of harm to civilians there, continuing even as the U.S. reduces on-the-ground presence, is breathtaking. In the past week and a half, car bombs in Iraq have killed 218. Non-combatant deaths in Iraq alone due to war-related violence since the U.S. invasion are placed at 112,114-122,644.

The contrast between the death and destruction here and abroad is captured in a recent photo of a group of Syrians with a sign that reads, “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.” Some in Europe who have also experienced terrorist attacks hold that the U.S. over-reacts to such events. For them, the closing down of a major American city and some of its suburbs cedes important ground.

The violence of the Global War on Terror has staggered the U.S. military itself. Of the roughly 2.5 million U.S. troops who have served in the two theaters, the Defense Department reports deaths in Afghanistan of 2,193, with 18,418 wounded. For Iraq the figures are 4,488 and 32,221. The number of soldiers taking their own lives now exceeds the number of those killed on the battlefield. One Harvard economist estimates the eventual total cost of both wars at $4 trillion-$6 trillion.

For some veterans, the most difficult feature of their deployments – and now of their re-entry – has been the erosion of their own humanity by the carnage. Early on, officials confirmed a link between a soldier’s number of deployments and proximity to combat and the likelihood and severity of post-traumatic stress disorder. One study found that 46 percent of combat troops interviewed in Afghanistan and 69 percent in Iraq had seen injured women and children whom they had been unable to help. The erosion of values is also reflected in the widespread pattern of sexual abuse of U.S. troops by fellow U.S. troops. Given the carnage of the Boston event, experts are now expressing concern for the mental health of spectators as well as victims there.

In prosecuting the Global War, the U.S. has gone to some lengths to avoid civilian casualties, realizing that such “collateral damage” is counter-productive. But the increased use of drones, while reducing the exposure of U.S. boots on the ground, is itself implicated in injury to civilians.

In fact, a Facebook post by Micah Daigle went viral, tapping into anti-drone sentiment in such places as Pakistan. According to Daigle’s alternate ending, the younger suspect, cornered in a boat in a Watertown backyard, was said to have been killed by a drone, which at the same time killed 46 people in the neighborhood, 12 of them children. It wasn’t true but some at first believed it.

Some resonances of the Marathon violence beyond Boston are more positive. U.S. troops were agents of mercy. Fifteen active-duty soldiers from the Massachusetts National Guard walked the 26.2-mile Marathon course carrying 40-pound packs to express solidarity with U.S. troops and raise funds for military families.

After the two bomb blasts, individual veterans also sprang into action. Like some civilians in the crowd, soldiers rushed toward rather than away from the blast areas. The impulse to reach out recalled the efforts of soldiers to assist civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq through “hearts and minds” programs and individual acts of kindness.

Treatment of the injured at the scene and afterwards benefited from recent advances in trauma medicine. “The skills that soldiers mastered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” wrote Boston Globe commentator Juliette Kayyem, “created competencies that saved lives, and limbs, at the bomb site.” To date, some 1,600 U.S. military personnel have lost limbs in those two theaters.

Indeed, first-responders and rehabilitation specialists note similarities between the weapons of destruction in Boston and the carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here as there, home-crafted weapons planted on the ground and designed to maim target feet and legs rather than torsos. Recent experience underscores the difficulties of ensuring physical safety in busy places when lethal devices are so easily fabricated and when those who plant them are motivated by political grievances, real or perceived.
In short, lessons of the Boston bombings can help guide our future course. Attention will need to be paid to reducing the vulnerability of ordinary citizens going about their business. More fundamentally, however, the concept of a global network of terror and terrorists best counteracted by “war” needs revisiting.

Acknowledging the unsatisfactory results of current approaches, let us use the year before the 2014 Boston Marathon to explore alternatives to violence and to invest in the things that make for peace.

Letter to the Editor

April 10, 2013

To the Editor

In her Op-ed, “Take burden off Veterans Affairs” (April 8), Juliette Kayyem reviews the heavy human and financial costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   “There are many reasons not to go to war,” she says after surveying the damages, “but surely our inability to care for those who fought should be one of them.”   Her view is echoed by many veterans themselves.  Indeed, why even consider policies that vitiate the humanity of those implementing them?

If U.S. foreign policy were to give higher priority to the preciousness of human life – American and otherwise – this nation would be more circumspect in embracing military solutions to the world’s most intractable problems.  Lurking within the menu of U.S. responses to current crises – the pressure to support Israel in a military confrontation with Iran, the threat of armed conflict in the Koreas, the civil war in Syria – is the possibility that U.S. soldiers will again be drawn into the fray.  Increasing reliance on drones is not a solution but more of the same.

By all means, the Department of Veterans Affairs deserves a place at the tables where decisions regarding future U.S. military action are weighed and alternatives sought.  That is surely one of the principal lessons from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Larry Minear
Orleans, MA

The Art of War

The Boston Globe – November 11th. 2012

The greeting is now a familiar one. Strangers at airports approach khaki-clad soldiers, hands extended, and say, “Thank you for your service to our nation.’’ Sporting events are interrupted to salute veterans. Public gatherings acknowledge their presence. What’s not to like about these expressions of thanks?

Veterans are increasingly making their views known about their service in Afghanistan and Iraq and about the welcomes home they are receiving. They do so in conversations and interviews, letters and poetry, photographsand graphic arts. The treasure trove of materials is burgeoning, including commentary gathered in collections like the Veterans History Project in the Library of Congress and the three volumes of poetry and prose published by the Warrior Writers project.

Many veterans contrast the welcomes they are receiving as they return home from Afghanistan and Iraq with the often hostile receptions accorded US troops returning from Vietnam. Veterans find in the warmth of the current receptions a gratifying indication that Americans post-Vietnam have learned to separate the warriors from the war.

But some veterans find themselves wondering whether their well-wishers have any real idea of what their “service to our nation” has involved. Nathan Lewis, who joined the Army in August 2001 fresh out of high school and served in Iraq, shares his thoughts in a poem titled “Golden Rule”:

Mothers teach shoelace loop, over under pull tight.
Say thank you to the nice man
Look both ways before you cross
Wednesday night bath
Be nice to your sister
Mothers teach not
Center mass aiming
Ingenious torture methods
Like the no-sleep game and the dig your own grave game
Not elevation angle for grenade launcher
Nor the high five yeehaw congratulations back slap
Certainly they didn’t teach burning shit barrels and convoy ops
Mothers don’t teach that.

Some veterans wonder whether the public, largely disengaged from the wars while they raged, is now playing catch-up. Reflecting on the welcome received following his Army tour in Iraq, Lowell native Sean Casey confides in a poem that such a “celebration of his violent profession unnerves him. He understands now, by his time in the desert, that if they knew the true story of his profession, they’d be more reserved. He shares his views in writing, he says, because doing so helps bring “order to the internal chaos” he feels.

While the vast majority of US military personnel do not publicly question what they were tasked to do in the two post-9/11 wars, some express bitterness at the lack of accountability of those who dispatched them into the fray. In his “Letter to the War Presidents” — among whom he includes chief executives who presided over earlier wars as well as the global war on terror — Raymond Camper, who served in Iraq with Virginia and Minnesota National Guard units, makes an impassioned appeal to US commanders in chief.

Would you shed one drop of blood
for the gallons that we’ve given,
would you last one day in the conditions
we’ve spent years in?

Would you be able to sign on the dotted line,
and follow the directives sent down from on high
when they went against your convictions of wrong and right?

Would you be able to look your family in the face,
and tell them it was worth it,
when you can’t forgive yourself,
for the carnage you partook in?

You have not engaged your enemy at close range,
seen the sweat and fear upon his face,
before you forever erased him away.

My generation has done this and more,
some of us while questioning,
others while adoring,
nonetheless,
we are the children who you will bury,
without ever knowing what our level of sacrifice feels like.

“We sleep comfortably in our beds at night,” Joshua Casteel recalls being told in an ROTC training session, “because violent men do violence on our behalf.” But is all such violence legitimate, and are US interests well served by violence of the sort that has characterized the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq? To the discomfort of those who will listen, some veterans trace the lines of ricocheting violence back to the US body politic, which in the broadest sense bears responsibility for US wars and their prosecution.

The airport “thank you’’ ritual, like the yellow ribbon campaign before it, strikes some veterans as a substitute for dialogue rather than as the opening of a serious conversation. “Supporting the troops” has also become a convenient shorthand for everything from keeping US soldiers on the ground for the foreseeable future to accelerating their return. Jacob George, who served three Iraq tours as a combat engineer, demands that we listen carefully because he himself is one of those troops. If you are really serious about supporting the troops, he writes,

what we need are teachers who understand the meaning of this country
what we need is a decent living wage so that people are not cold and hungry
what we need is a justice system that seeks truth
what we need are more books and less boots.

Veterans and new-breed veterans’ groups are challenging not only presidents and members of Congress but also the American public, to whom elected officials are accountable. Aidan Delgado, posted at Abu Ghraib, is convinced that “if people could see the bodies, the blood, they wouldn’t be able to support this war with a clear conscience.” Some veterans believe and hope that long after the last American body is repatriated, questions about the wisdom of the wars and the effectiveness of the strategies and tactics employed will continue to insist on answers.

There is much to learn from those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq and who now make bold to express their hard-won convictions in poetry and prose, in conversation and art. Yes, we need to thank them for their service, express concern about their well-being, and speed their reintegration. But we also owe it to them to struggle with the issues they raise. Especially on this Veterans Day, let us listen to their voices rather than drowning them out with our own.

Click here to read PDF

Bookstock Conference

Woodstock VT.  July 28, 2012

A panel discussion involving two veterans who have written about their experiences,, one official associated with the VA’s National Center for PTSD, and Larry Minear.

 

A Voice for New Veterans – VHP Records Experiences of Troops Returning Home from Ongoing Wars

Click here to read PDF

Larry Minear: 9/11 and the true cost of war

from: Providence Journal, Sept. 10, 2011

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is a fitting time to take stock of the wide-ranging impacts of the nation’s military response to the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on the U.S. troops involved.

The number of individuals, families, and communities affected is wide-ranging. As of June 30 of this year, 2,318,856 U.S. military personnel had been deployed in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Upwards of 1 million of them have served more than a single tour. As of Aug. 8, casualties exceeded 50,000, including about 6,000 deaths and more than 44,600 wounded in the two conflicts combined. Official tallies of U.S. expenditures place the wars’ economic cost at $1.3 trillion; other estimates range as high as $3.2 trillion to $4 trillion.

In one sense, the time is never ripe for a reprise of wartime experience. Undertaken too soon, reflection may keep alive the wounds of war; deferred too long, it may lose urgency and never happen. But a national stock-taking of lessons to be learned is imperative, however rancorous the current tone of discourse in the public square. In such an exercise, the views of veterans themselves, as well as of their families and communities, deserve pondering.

The issues that veterans identify as needing reflection are legion. What should be the response of a modern Western military to low-tech enemies? Are some conflicts so asymmetric and hazardous that they should not be joined? How should the U.S. respond to foes who do not play by the established rules of warfare and employ tactics calculated to provoke bad behavior?

What is the appropriate balance between “hard” and “soft” power, and what role should the military play in “hearts-and-minds” programs designed to win the allegiance of civilian populations? To what extent should the architects and implementers of U.S. policy be held accountable for the results? Should a military draft be reinstated to spread ownership and promote accountability?

Perhaps most important: Has U.S. national security been durably strengthened as a result of the military and political policies pursued and the human and economic costs incurred in the decade since 9/11?

A recurrent theme of several hundred interviews with U.S. military personnel — some contained in dossiers in the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, others conducted by me — is that many of the troops view the American public as largely unengaged in these wars being fought in its name.

Some returning veterans are prepared to share their experiences, in part to speed their own rehabilitation. Others sense that revisiting their involvement may simply keep their own memories alive. “He so badly wants me to understand what he went through,” observes the wife of a member of the New Hampshire National Guard. “I will never understand, just as he will never understand what I went through.” Factory co-workers at her husband’s welcome-home reception couldn’t have cared less. “Give me the [expletive] respect of looking at my pictures,” he shouted in desperation. “Do you have any idea of what I’ve done?”

The gratitude often lavished by total strangers on troops returning from Baghdad and Kabul is certainly preferable to the hostility encountered by their predecessors returning from Vietnam. Indeed, the return of this latest generation of veterans has emboldened some Vietnam-era veterans to end their suffering-in-silence and reach out for help. By the same token, an engaged public, now distinguishing the warrior from the war, could ease the way for veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq back into family, community and work life. Yet as John Clifford, a Cape Cod veteran who served as a medic in Iraq, points out, some of those who thank him for his service to the country have precious little knowledge of what these wars are really like.

By their own accounts, fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has proved positive and fulfilling for some, searing for many, sobering for most. Whatever their personal views, veterans offer eloquent testimony to the need for public reflection on the experience of the wars.

“I wish that civilians and policy-makers understood, at an emotional level, the tremendous toll and cost of war on those who actually experience it,” says Jonathan McMaster, a Marine who served in Iraq in 2004. Marine Sgt. Adam Paulson concurs. “The first-person perspective has definitely changed my life in thinking about that kind of thing. How big a responsibility it is for someone to declare war or wage war!”

January/February 2011

Through Veterans’ Eyes was listed by the Friends Committee on National Legislation in its January/February Washington Newsletter as one of four titles on a Greater Middle East Reading List.

Veterans need public to complete the connection

from: Stars and Stripes, May 31, 10

Earlier this month the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans gathered in Washington for its third annual conference. The coalition brings together scores of groups — large and small, national and local, old-line and neophyte, service organizations and advocates.

One of the recurring themes of the three-day gathering concerned the uneasy interaction between veterans and the wider public. A newly released poll commissioned by the coalition found “a very real and disturbing disconnect among the majority of Americans in understanding how deployment contributes to economic, social, and familial stress through a dearth of services and support, all factors which drive veterans and their families to poverty and homelessness.” Poll data confirm that “The majority of Americans do not understand the true cost of war. In fact, less than fifty percent are aware that our country has sent two million troops to Iraq, Afghanistan, and areas in support of the Global War on Terror.”

But there were encouraging findings as well. The prevailing assumption had been that with fewer than 1 percent of Americans (two million out of 300 million) serving or having served in the two theaters, the remaining 99 percent of the population is largely untouched by the wars. In actuality, “two out of three Americans know someone who has served, whether a family member, friend, colleague, or acquaintance.” This wider population is likely to be more knowledgeable and engaged. The conference itself provided a more detailed assessment of the interaction between veterans who perceive the public as distant and a public for whom veterans register only fitfully on their screens.

Panel presentations by veterans highlighted the difficulties in finding work upon returning to the States. Despite circulating resumes widely, several had been job-hunting for more than a year. One observed that since few employers acknowledged receiving applications, he considered a letter of rejection something of a personal triumph. Several lamented that skill sets honed in combat are not understood or valued in the private sector, where there is little appreciation for the accomplishments of, say, a machine gunner in displaying leadership and good judgment under duress.

One veteran whose first resumes led proudly with “I am a Marine” soon found alternative ways of describing what he would bring to his new employer. One young woman veteran, fearing that her application would be jinxed by her post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, referred to her time in Iraq euphemistically as “employment by the federal government.” Returnees take strong issue with the view heard increasingly these days that the current preference for veterans in some public and private sector hiring, honored in the breach, should now be scrapped altogether.

Some veterans have succeeded in landing jobs, often with veterans groups themselves. Yet unlike World War II, when pent-up demand, particularly for housing, fueled a major postwar economic recovery, job offers today are slow to materialize. Many veterans are returning to rural areas that are themselves in the throes of long-term economic and social crises. Constituting only 17 percent of the country’s population, rural America supplies fully 45 percent of U.S. military personnel.

A panel of reporters (one from Stars and Stripes) whose beat includes veterans issues reflected further on the current state of public opinion. The public is tired of the two wars and is not digesting what the media offers, they said. I can’t write any more PTSD stories, lamented one reporter, unless it’s something on the order of the Fort Hood incident.

The lack of active awareness among many Americans about Afghanistan and Iraq may thus impede not only remedial action but even the availability of essential information. With the public having largely avoided engagement in the wars to date, public indifference threatens to slow the reintegration process further.

Despite the searing nature of what they have experienced, most veterans project a remarkably positive spirit. Avoiding self-pity and disputing the stereotype that returnees are problem-prone, their plea is that they simply be given an opportunity to get on with their lives.

With U.S. troops killed and wounded in action in the two conflicts now exceeding 43,000, this Memorial Day provides an occasion for coming to terms with such basic disconnects. It is time for a fresh look at the conflicts and those who have fought in them. The approach of a New Hampshire social services agency makes sense: “Instead of thinking of soldiers and veterans as ‘warriors,’ we must remind ourselves that they are fathers, mothers, co-workers, or the girl next door who may be desperately struggling with PTSD or living near poverty level and in need of groceries.”

Rather than wrapping ourselves in comfortable rhetoric about heroism and sacrifice, this Memorial Day needs to be an occasion for sober reflection. We owe it to veterans to become more knowledgeable about what they have experienced and more energetic in tackling the larger economic and social issues highlighted by their re-entry. After the fearsome ravages of the conflicts, veterans offer us an opportunity to reaffirm our own humanity even as they seek against formidable odds to reclaim theirs.

N.H. Guard has led the way

from: Concord Monitor, May 30, 10

More than 2.2 million U.S. troops have served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. More than 800,000 have been deployed more than once. U.S. casualties have reached 42,969. Government estimates tally the economic costs to date at $1 trillion; private analysts place the costs higher still.

Throughout nine years of warfare, New Hampshire has been a leader among state Guard units in fighting the “global war on terror” and in identifying its impacts on the troops. State and local social service agencies have also played a key role. The suicide on Aug. 18, 2004, of Technical Sgt. David Guindon, a member of the New Hampshire Air National Guard, one day after his return from six months in Iraq, served as a clarion call.

Guard officials shifted their focus from planning traditional welcome-home ceremonies

for returnees to conducting mandatory counseling sessions for each individual veteran.

Of the 800 who returned from Iraq in early 2005, some 530 availed themselves of mental health services. New Hampshire-style one-on-one debriefs are now encouraged across the country, whether in Guard and Reserve or in active-duty units.

State officials debriefing the early returnees found that the need for post-combat treatment correlates closely with the duration and spacing of deployments and the violence to which individuals are exposed. The data collected in New Hampshire illuminated the nature and incidence of what would become the “signature injuries” of the conflicts: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

A 2008 RAND study found that 20 percent of returnees nationally report symptoms of PTSD or major depression. Military officials nationally have subsequently sought to provide more “down time” between deployments and to minimize involuntary extensions of tours of duty.

Public, private

New Hampshire has also been in the forefront of mobilizing public and private services for veterans.

The state was among the first to mount a robust interagency effort linking public and private resources in employment, social services, mental health, education and the treatment of substance abuse. In addition to connecting returnees with resources and expanding available services, interagency planners have encouraged Guard personnel readying themselves for future deployment to think in terms of “your boots, your belt, your shirt – and your pre-deployment social worker.”

New Hampshire innovations are figuring in legislation now pending before the U.S. Congress and in programs replicated in places such as Minnesota, New Mexico and Kansas.

The challenges faced in New Hampshire are typical of those in other rural states. Rural America constitutes only 17 percent of the country’s population but supplies fully 45 percent of the nation’s military. Personnel in the Guard and Reserves returning to New Hampshire and other such areas that are economically depressed and lacking essential social services experience greater difficulty than those in active-duty units who resettle on or near military bases.

Against this backdrop, let us examine more closely the experience of veterans in Afghanistan and Iraq. Let us work to resolve the conflicts themselves without delay. Let us come to terms with the wider meaning of the experience for this nation and its ongoing role in the world.

History project

The state’s Guard leadership deserves commendation for efforts to learn from its experience. In mid-2005, New Hampshire carried out its own global war on terror history project, soliciting the views of individuals from the ranks. That same spirit informed the Guard’s agreement to permit the making of the 2006 documentary, The War Tapes, based on footage taken by three guardsmen deployed to Iraq.

An informative series of articles by Monitor reporter Joelle Farrell in 2007 enjoyed active Guard cooperation.

My own book draws heavily on New Hampshire experience, which the authorities as well as the rank-and-file were quite willing to share with me.

In New Hampshire and across the nation, there is much to ponder this Memorial Day. Troop levels are being drawn down in Iraq, but the number of U.S. soldiers deployed to Afghanistan (with still more to follow later in the year) now exceeds the number in Iraq.

The healing and reintegration of those already back continues to experience delays. While some Veterans Administration facilities have been more accessible than others, nationally the long lag time in obtaining services has not been much reduced and homelessness and suicide rates are up.


Larry Minear: U.S. troops’ views of Afghan venture

from: Providence Journal Bulletin, Sept. 30, 09

ORLEANS, Mass.

AS THE OBAMA administration struggles with whether to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan, news coverage has highlighted slippage in support among the American public for the war. The erosion reflects a worrisome spike in U.S. casualties and the weaknesses of the Afghan government demonstrated by last month’s flawed elections.

Conspicuously absent from the public debate are the views of U.S. soldiers back from Afghanistan and Iraq, those currently there, and those poised for deployment or redeployment. In one sense, this is as it should be. Members of the armed forces serving in these conflicts have exhibited great professionalism in keeping political opinions to themselves. Yet many have strong views about the rationale for U.S. engagement, the strategies and tactics, the adequacy of their training and equipment, and the length and frequency of deployments. Whatever their views, the perspectives of those in harm’s way deserve to be taken more fully into account in decision-making about the war.

The views of veterans of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq are sharply etched in the thousand-plus dossiers available in the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project. Amplifying them are interviews with scores of soldiers I have conducted for a forthcoming book.

Veterans’ views vary widely. Many of those interviewed are more convinced of the rightness and urgency of doing battle in Afghanistan than in Iraq, although a fair number do not resonate to the Global War on Terror rationale offered by George W. Bush’s administration for either conflict. Some veterans in each conflict have become more convinced about the necessity of U.S. military involvement as a result of their own combat or their hearts-and-minds work. Others who were firmly committed to the cause when deployed have now become tough critics.

Views also vary among veterans’ groups and retired military officers. The two wars have spawned new organizations of veterans and their families. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, strong supporters of U.S. wars over the decades, now share the stage with an array of groups, some opposing the conflicts. Military officers, once retired and no longer required to keep their views to themselves, have articulated their sentiments as media commentators and rallied publicly around their candidates of choice.

As the Obama administration considers its options in Afghanistan, the factors to be weighed are legion. Boosting U.S. troop strength would work serious hardship on many American families and communities. That likelihood is reflected in the comment of one spouse in a focus group of family members convened in late 2006. Her marriage, she confided, had barely survived her husband’s first deployment to Afghanistan as a member of a New England National Guard unit. She doubted that it would survive a second.

The issue, of course, is not whether an escalation of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would cause hardship but rather whether the hardship in pursuit of objectives that are themselves still being defined would be worth the costs: national and individual, long-term and short-term, social and economic. Policy-makers may balk at the proposition that a war could be so costly that it should not be waged at all. However, the experience described first-hand by the veterans is so wrenching that it underscores the need to rethink the traditional cost/benefit calculus before committing additional troops.

In recent weeks, President Obama has begun to demonstrate a welcome wariness about whether to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan. “I have to exercise skepticism any time I send a single young man or woman in uniform into harm’s way,” he says, “because I’m the one who is answerable to their parents if they don’t come home.” His predecessor, visiting the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., last December, said, “Being commander in chief of the military is the thing I’ll miss most. Coming to Walter Reed is a reminder of why I’ll miss it.”

The experience of the 2 million-plus U.S. troops who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq since Sept. 11, 2001, does not provide the president with an unequivocal answer to the question of whether to augment the U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and, if so, by what number. From the many opinions in the interviews cited in my study, however, a cautionary note sounded by Marine Sgt. Adam Paulson seems particularly worth pondering. Asked how his tours of duty in the two theaters have affected his thinking, he replied, “The experience makes me a whole lot more against war in general. It would be a last resort for me. The first-person perspective,” he concludes, “has definitely changed my life. How big a responsibility it is to declare war or wage war!”

This opinion piece also appeared in the Stars and Stripes (electronic edition), October 14, 2009.

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