WARNING: THIS ESSAY CONTAINS HIGH DOSES OF CYNICISM
Why isn't anybody surprised?
Over this past weekend, we learned that Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai has been receiving bags full of money from Iran. Literally - bags full of Euros. For "expenses," as Karzai has absurdly explained.
I used to think that presidents Bush and Obama were correct in supporting Karzai, and for years, it appeared as though he had the western sophistication and the Afghan street cred to pull off a workable democracy in his ancient country. But alas, as time marches on, it's taking Karzai's facade of integrity with it, revealing just another Bedouin trader getting along by the seat of his pants. Whether it's recruiting family members to act as government puppets or lavishing money from the Afghan treasury on poorly-vetted fiascoes in Dubai, perhaps the only distinctive separating Karzai and his henchmen from his more provincial forefathers is that funky hat and cape he wears. The ensemble that made him somewhat of a fashion statement after we installed him as our own puppet after claiming to have routed the Taliban.
Now, however, as the wars drag on in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the incessant drumbeat of battles, deaths, collateral damage, equipment failures, and escalating financial costs seems to be smothering Main Street America's appetite for trying to save Afghans and Iraqis from themselves. This latest bit of news about Karzai's cash stash only makes everything worse.
The New World of War
On the whole, we tend to forget that the actual death counts among our armed forces is curiously low, at least by actuarial standards.
For a military conflict entering its 10th year.
In parts of the world that have only ever been at peace long enough to re-load.
But still, Bush wanted to minimize press coverage when war dead returned to American soil, and Obama wants us to think things are going so well that his arbitrary withdrawal dates are actually based on sound military judgment. Yet many families of American servicemembers complain that the pain of sacrifice they're experiencing isn't being distributed - evenly or otherwise - across the country like it was in previous wars.
Afghanistan and Iraq exist in the periphery of daily life for most Americans, and somedays not at all. We see uniformed soldiers waiting for flights at the airport, and maybe a couple of us will go up and thank them for their service. A soldier visits their family on leave, and when they're at church together, they may receive an enthusiastic round of applause from the congregation. But that's about it. And some families with loved ones overseas wonder if that's all they should expect.
In our jaded, post-war world, where we don't have the draft and military service can actually provide some pretty good employment benefits, many of us shrug our shoulders and say, "well, that's what you signed up for." Which, of course, is true. Even the military reservists who found themselves suddenly in the Middle East after 9/11 should never have counted on not being called up for active duty. International conflicts have a nasty habit of blowing up - literally - over the smallest disagreements, and even though the rest of the world accuses us of being the globe's police, that's how they demand we respond whenever one of their neighbors rattles its sabres.
But be that as it may. If we have these people marching off to armed conflict - whether they've volunteered for it or not - they are putting their lives on the line for you and me. Sure, they get a paycheck for doing that, but can we abdicate basic humanity by not recognizing that a paycheck will never replace a limb or a life destroyed by an enemy of our country?
Have our presidents over-insulated us from the sacrifices that our military is making overseas on our behalf? Comparisons are inevitably made to the first and second World Wars, when stateside rationing impacted military and non-military families alike in the shared cause of securing a crucial victory. True, some of the propaganda to forge the nation's acquiescence of all the rationing was corny - and maybe even unconstitutional - by today's standards. But with Afghanistan and Iraq, by simply billing the Treasury the cost of the war and letting our national deficit skyrocket out of control, have Bush and Obama needlessly created a nation of ambivalence?
Counting the Cost
According to a report prepared for Congress, the total amount you and I have spent on the three major military responses to 9/11 is $1.21 trillion. That's what Afghanistan's Operation Enduring Freedom, Iraq's Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the lesser-known Operation Noble Freedom have cost us.
Let's crunch some more numbers. In 2009, our Department of Defense (DoD) spent extra appropriations of $5.7 billion in Afghanistan and $5.4 billion in Iraq. Of course, these numbers don't reflect the billions that have already been spend to deploy our armed forces and establish military commands in various theaters of operation in the two countries. This combined $11.1 billion doesn't count the additional $34.4 billion approved by Congress this year to help pay for not only additional troops, but also increased public aid to the two countries. So let's assume it's safe to say that this year, you and I will be paying $45.5 billion above and beyond the DoD's annual budget for the war effort.
Let's take that cost and divide it by the number of people we have in the United States, which is 310,561,740 patriotic souls. This year's Afghanistan/Iraq supplemental DoD spending of $45.5 billion, divided by 310,561,740, equals $146.51 for each man, woman, and child in America. That's how much extra the DoD is spending in Afghanistan and Iraq this year per citizen.
Now lets take $1.21 trillion and divide it by the number of US citizens. This gives us an amount of $3,896.17 per person, which represents the total cost per person of the Afghan and Iraq wars.
In and of themselves, these aren't staggering numbers when broken down per citizen, are they? Depending on your economic situation, they may be significant for you personally, and if you have a family comprised of four people, you can see how it can add up even more quickly. But still, as wars go, these are not impossibly staggering financial costs.
But let's compare. In 1940 money, America's bill for World War II ran roughly $288 billion. In today's money, that equates to about $4.4 trillion borne by a population of 132,164,569, roughly a third of today's population.
Incursions as Excursions
We don't need to crunch any more numbers to see that financially, Americans are way ahead of the game when it comes to funding our excursions to Afghanistan and Iraq, compared with World War II.
Which is what they've turned out to be, haven't they: excursions? (Although some might say "incursions!") We've been in Afghanistan for 10 years, and almost as long in Iraq. TEN years! World War II only lasted four, killed tens of millions, cost the United States four times as much, and completely re-wrote history. Meanwhile, our politicians are throwing a pittance into the festering pots of strife in two of the most volatile parts of the world. They've been able to space out 1,000 service personnel deaths over a decade to minimize the bad press, while at the same time, consume volumes of press time trying to prove how well we're doing.
What would it take to really win this thing? Do Americans really lack the political will to "git 'er done?" What kind of real pressure are we under? Will it take another 9/11 to pump fresh blood into the war on terror?
Bush told us that it would take a long time to "defeat" terrorism, but we all know that was a pipe dream to begin with. Terrorism will never be defeated; at best, we can hope to contain most of it and punish its most virulent perpetrators. Osama bin Laden? Do you really believe that the United States could throw all its might towards defeating two fronts in World War II but can't find one man?
The New Status Quo?
Yes, yes, yes: we have press embedded with our troops now that will report on every minute transgression, lapse of judgment, and faulty intelligence matter that our military will inevitably commit. We've got armchair generals in Two-Bit, Nebraska and Manhattan's Upper West Side blogging about all of the split-second mistakes soldiers are making while their lives hang by sand-encrusted Velcro, the horror flashing before their eyes more utterly vivid that the most wild video game they ever played as a kid. During World War II, officers took amazing risks and aggressively pursued their enemies, but today, the only time people value risk is when it might earn them a lot of money.
Of course, if any reporter blabbed about collateral damage back then, their editors would usually give the benefit of the doubt to the military and keep the story quiet for the sake of the nation. These days, everybody's out for themself. Talking heads across the media spectrum cluck - almost gloatingly - about how bin Laden can be so effectively hidden from the most powerful military force on the planet, and late night talk show hosts have made it fodder for their comedy routines. Our pop culture had managed to gut the life and death right out of these two wars, all the while self-absorbed elites like NPR's Vivian Schiller fire staffers like Juan Williams for saying out loud what everybody's thinking.
Would three trillion more dollars spent on the "war" effort bring bin Laden to trial? Shucks, how about just doubling what we've already spent? What about all this fantastic technology we're supposedly on the cutting edge of? Do we just have more time than money to drag these operations out until they just become part of everyday life, like having coffee or checking your e-mail? Is dragging all of this out helping to keep costs distributed so that people can easily forget how much we're spending? It's like any other type of debt our society has become so accustomed to tolerating. Payday will come someday, but we've still got time to buy more stuff.
In the meantime, parents of those soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq say the rest of us aren't sharing in their burden.
No, we're not. And I suspect that's how our political leaders of both stripes want it.