My parents remember World War II, during which nearly 12 million Americans served overseas. Out of a population of 133 million, 9% were in the military in 1945. This caused huge social and economic displacements. To support them, supplies to civilians were rationed. Meat, cheese, sugar, and coffee were all rationed, as were tires, fuel oil, and shoes. The sacrifice of this monumental effort was felt throughout society.
I grew up as the Vietnam War was expanding. I used to sneak downstairs to peek around the corner and watch the Huntley-Brinkley newscast because I liked the theme music (the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th). One of my pivotal memories is, at five years old, seeing rows of flag-draped coffins on the black-and-white TV. I didn’t understand what was happening, and I couldn’t ask my parents because I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I knew something really bad was going on. The Vietnam War, undertaken against our own experts’ advice and badly executed, also had a monumental impact on society, dividing those who served from those who viewed soldiers as symbols of a government’s failing policy. I was less aware of the Kent State shooting when I was ten years old, but well aware of the controversy over the draft as I entered my teens.
Ironically, it was during this period that President Johnson declared his War on Poverty, which reduced the poverty level by 38% over eight years. This metaphorical use of the word “war” would affect our society in different but perhaps greater ways. Since that time, we’ve engaged in a War on Drugs (1971-Present) and a War on Gangs (2005-Present). We’ve waged war on cancer, AIDS, and obesity. Then there’s the War on Terror (2001-Present), which has permeated our lives and consciousness for almost 15 years. More recently, politicians have accused each other of waging War on Women, War on Energy, War on Religion, War on Jobs, and War on Working Families. Television shows now include “Storage Wars” and even “Cupcake Wars.”
Apparently, we are a nation at war. But not really. Even the War on Terror cannot be compared with wars we’ve fought in the past. About 1.4 million people now serve in the U.S. military, only 0.4% of our population. Just over 5,200 American troops have been killed in battle since 2001. That ranks the War on Terror (including Iraq and Afghanistan) slightly above the Philippine-American War of 1899. (Haven’t heard of that one? I hadn’t either.) We’re a far cry from 53,000 killed in Vietnam, or 290,000 killed in World War II.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying our soldiers don’t go through hell and make appalling sacrifices discharging their duties in the field. They do. I’m saying the rest of us don’t. There’s been an ammunition shortage in civilian markets caused by billions of rounds being fired overseas, about 300,000 rounds per insurgent killed, causing the Pentagon to buy ammunition from Israel because domestic manufacture can’t keep up. Otherwise, there’s very little effect on us here at home. We aren’t rationed. We aren’t drafted. Taxes are low.
But we’re at war.
We’ve shifted from “total war,” in which an entire nation mobilizes to defeat an enemy, to constant war, in which only persistent rhetoric from politicians reminds us that we even have an enemy.
James Childress warns, “In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war.” We’re being reminded how to hate an enemy, but sheltered from what war really means. And after 15 years without victory, it would seem that either our leaders don’t know how to win this war, or they don’t want to win it. Clearly there are advantages to continuing a war that we at home don’t really notice.
But what will the long term cost be? The power vacuum left as we destroyed governments in the Muslim world has led to the rise of new and innovative enemies. ISIS was unknown in 2001, but is now prominent and growing. Iran has used our intervention to strengthen its presence throughout the region and support other militant groups. How long will it be before we have a real enemy with whom to fight a real war? And are we really prepared for that? We talk of being a nation at war, but is that what we really want? Or can we imagine, now that our major enemies are gone, becoming a nation at peace?
As we contemplate that question, let us never forget that this is what war really looks like after just one battle. Personally, I vote for peace.