NEW YORK – Americans, our pundit class has decided, aren’t going along with President Obama’s hard-on for firing cruise missiles into Syrian cities because they’re “war weary.” Bullsh*t.
True, the wars have cost us. At 12 years and counting, the illegal and unjustified U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is America’s longest war. We’ve been in Iraq — following one of the most brazen acts of aggressive warfare in our blood-soaked history — for 10. Eight thousand American soldiers have gotten themselves killed; more than 50,000 have been wounded. (To conform to the journalistic standards of U.S.-based opinion writing, I won’t mention the hundreds of thousands of Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis and so on slaughtered by U.S. invasion forces.)
As tragically wasteful as those casualties have been, the price we’ve paid has been low by historical standards. Roughly 700 U.S. combat deaths a year is a drop in the bucket compared to, say, Vietnam (6,000 a year), Korea (12,000) and World War II (100,000). Unlike those earlier conflicts, the post-9/11 war on terrorism has been a remote, irrelevant abstraction to most Americans.
“Our work is appreciated, of that I am certain,”Gen. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff told members,told graduates at West Point. “But I fear [civilians] do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.” A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that just a third of Americans aged 18 to 29 have a direct family member who has served in uniform since 9/11 — the lowest rate in memory.
About 2.2 million Americans have served in Afghanistan or Iraq — not much fewer than the 2.7 million who went to Vietnam. The difference is that today’s volunteer military is less broadly representative of American society.
A woman recently introduced me to her brother. “He just got back from Iraq,” she said. “Afghanistan,” he corrected her. His sister! “Thank you for your service,” a man walking told him, without waiting for a reply. The vet’s face hardened. Nobody gets it. Civilians never did, not fully — but the disconnect was never this big.
“War-weary”? You must first notice something before you can get tired of it.
Until the Syria debate, antiwar liberals like New York congressman Charles Rangel have been decrying the gap between civilians and the military. His proposed solution? Bring back the draft. Rangel and others reason that if more young people — not just poor, undereducated, underprivileged yokels from the sticks — had “skin in the game,” it would be harder for politicians to start one war after another.
“A renewed draft will help bring a greater appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war,” Rangel argues. After Obama proposed bombing Syria, Rangel renewed his proposal.
The United States has been at war throughout 90 percent of its history. I am 50 years old, born a few months before the assassination of JFK; my only peacetime president has been Jimmy Carter. War-weary? Like Orwell’s Oceania, the United States of America is always at war. We love war. War is what America does best, war is what America does most. War is 54 percent of the federal budget!
As noted above, there have been relatively few casualties in the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Because media coverage has been so sanitized and pro-military, these wars’ gruesome atrocities, the My Lais and napalm attacks — Mahmudiya, Panjwaii, white phosphorus that dissolved people in the battle of Fallujah — have barely been reported, so there have been few Vietnam-type images piped into our living rooms to elicit disgust or guilt. Even the fiscal effects have been deferred; the wars are officially off the books and thus aren’t tallied as part of the budget deficit.
Given how little the current wars have personally affected us, why would we be war-weary? If Obama doesn’t get his war against Syria, he has no one to blame but himself. The dude is just lazy.
Think of the list of American wars, just since 1990: the Gulf War, Serbia, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen, Libya … it isn’t hard to con Americans into a war. Unlike Bush and his warmongering predecessors, however, Obama isn’t willing to do the propaganda work.
These things can’t be rushed. Bush spent a year and a half making his phony case to invade Iraq. Countless speeches, endless bullying, tons of twisted arguments and faked WMD reports.
Obama wanted to go to war four days after the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. How many Americans were even aware of the story? Remember, this was late summer, peak vacation season. First you tear Americans away from the barbecue, then you get to barbecue the Syrians.
As has been widely noted, Obama’s messaging was all over the place, confusing a public programmed to digest its politics in bumpersticker-length slogans and talking points. Allowing yourself to be seen golfing right after calling for war hardly conveys the requisite sense of menace, much less the urgency of an imminent threat.
When JFK wanted the public to sign off on nuclear brinksmanship with the Soviet Union, he went on TV with spy plane photos of Cuba’s missiles. Despite considerable evidence that the rebels or a rogue officer were responsible, Obama says he has proof that the sarin gas attack was ordered by Syrian President Bashar Assad. Yet, unlike JFK, he won’t pony up the proof.
Why not? As Russian President Vladimir Putin observes, that’s crazy fishy: “Claims that proof exists but is classified and cannot be shown are beneath criticism. If the U.S. says that the Assad regime is responsible for that attack and that they have proof, then let them submit it to the U.N. Security Council.”
Militarism is our thing, but Americans need to think their enemies threaten them directly before they’re cool with war.
Team Obama admits that Syria is not a direct or imminent danger to the U.S., but that we must attack them as a deterrent to other supposed future possible maybe enemies, namely Iran and North Korea. No dice. Only one in five Americans buys that. If Iran or North Korea is a threat, then attack those countries, not Syria.
Obama’s verbiage is telling: “I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States.”
Could not honestly claim. As opposed to something like this: “Assad’s use of chemical weapons is not an imminent, direct threat, so we have time for a congressional debate.”
Americans are good at reading between the lines. Another reason — not war-weariness — that Obama might not get his Syria war.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist and writer. His next book, to be published in March, is titled, “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” © 2013, Ted Rall
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