Damage Done

December 2005


In the New American Century, America is at war. We usually judge a policy by whether its means come at a cost justified by its ends. It is a simple equation, the return on investment. War is a means to an end. But nobody seems prepared to do the math.

Well, we're past a thousand dead and counting in Iraq. This does not count Afghanistan. Nor does this count any other service deaths related to the support of Iraq or Afghanistan. It also does not include civilian contractors or mercenaries employed by us to do jobs normally associated with armies. I wonder what the actual death toll would be, if we factored in all those other people? Whatever it is, it won't be one percent of the civilian and military deaths suffered by the Afghan and Iraqi people

Recently, the success of our emergency medical teams was news worthy for about a week. They have managed to save more lives than any combat medical support organization in the history of warfare. Now for every 100 wounded, only 10 die, as opposed to the figure of 25-30 dead for the Vietnam or Korean wars. This is indeed an achievement. I am glad that fewer young people are dying of their wounds, however, more men and women are being wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq per unit time than the official death toll might lead you to expect. At 1:10 dead to survivors, we've shipped home more than 10,000 damaged men and women since we invaded Iraq.

And again, that makes no mention of the terrible cost in mentally damaged men and women who come home without their plight being recognized. The kind of warfare we're engaged in, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, is hard on people. People are good at adapting and most make the adjustment to war fairly well. It requires a certain kind of insanity to keep your sanity. The more extreme the conditions, the more extreme the adaptation. When combat conditions are such that soldiers begin to torture people, indiscriminately murder people, and engage in meaningless acts of destruction for their own sake, then most people are irreparably harmed by the experience. They become incapable of re-adapting to their own homes, even if they are lucky enough to return to them.

Our military is making this worse by administering drugs to troops on patrol. Imagine the worst experience you ever had -- now imagine yourself liberally dosed with amphetamines during that experience. These drugs do result in "better combat performance" but there has been no serious study of the lasting after-effects of this kind of treatment. What happens when they return home?

My father worked with a firm in Austria in the 1950's that made artificial limbs for amputees. There were many amputees in Austria then. He told a story about visiting a small town in central Austria with a delivery of these artificial limbs. One young girl of 8 or 9 seemed fascinated by him and followed him around all afternoon, watching everything he did. "Perhaps it was because I was an American," he thought. As he was preparing to go, he saw the girl with a one-armed man he presumed to be her grandfather. He went over to them and asked the old man what the little girl had found so interesting about him. The old man answered, "Forgive her, she has never before been seeing a grown man who is whole, without any missing pieces."

More than a million US personnel have passed through Iraq. Too many have died already. Far too many have been injured or crippled. Way far too many have sustained emotional or psychological scars that will mar the rest of their lives. When estimating the cost of this war, we should keep in mind not just the hundreds of billions of our tax dollars that have fallen down the rabbit hole, but the human cost and continuing post-conflict suffering that this war brings to homes all across the nation -- more every day. Our children may not see the missing pieces this war has stolen from our young veteran men and women, but they feel the pain and suffer the consequences all the same.

What could we conceivably gain from this conflict that could possibly justify that kind of cost? Who should we hold accountable?

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