Wednesday, October 14, 2009

‘Didn’t go there to fight a war’

   This nation still can't decide if war is a joint responsibility we all share, or if it's something we hire out, like catering.

    Eight years in Afghanistan, six in Iraq, and we still treat warfare as just one of many service industries.

    The Bush administration ban on photographing coffins returning home from war, since lifted by this administration, was explained as being a nod to grieving families. But if war is a communal experience, as it once was, we are all the grieving family. The photo ban was a not-so-subtle gesture that war as waged today is a business in the proprietary sense, and only remotely our business.

     With the invasion of Iraq, having an all-volunteer fighting force made it possible to make warfare a speculative exercise rather than an act of necessity.

      Then the massive role of contractors further distanced the average American from the notion of war as something we do, rather than something for which we simply get billed. And, on that note, all we did was borrow to pay for it, and pass the note to future generations.

     Now a gripping account in the Los Angeles Times brings to mind how detached we have become to the military actions we have waged. T. Christian Miller reports on the plight of a contract worker, maimed by a roadside bomb in Iraq while driving a truck for KBR. He came home to marginal medical support and virtual anonymity, though his sacrifices and risks were equal to any in uniform.      

     More than 1,600 civilian workers, U.S. employees though not all Americans, have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

     "Many of the civilians have come home as military veterans in all but name, sometimes  with lifelong disabilities but without the support network available to returning troops," writes Miller.

      The contractor force represents tens of thousands of people, mostly Americans, hired to do any number of things in these war zones.

      In this endeavor, they are much like the temps who have helped corporate America get the job done without the benefits of full-time workers.

      Sure, the pay doesn't fit into that comparison. In most cases contractors' salaries are scandalously high compared to what we pay military personnel.

        However, the point: These are people we send to prosecute a war, to secure and occupy nations, and — who are they? Are they accountable to us? Are we accountable to them?

       The example of Blackwater Security, which so and so outraged the world that it legally changed its name — say hello to Xe — should have told us what is wrong with our propensity to hand over military functions to nonmilitary entities.

        Comments by the wife of the severely wounded KBR contract worker profiled in the Times are telling. Indeed, they speak for a nation which thought that in invading Iraq it was simply doing some international fumigating. We would take out a tyrant and then excuse ourselves along a trail of rose petals.

        "He didn't go over there to fight a war," said Linda Lane, whose husband Reggie came back with one less arm and permanent brain injuries. "He went over there because [KBR] said, 'You'll have armed guards. They promised big money. 'You'll be protected. No problem."

        Yes, and Iraqi oil would pay for the whole thing.

        Of all the things-not-to-do as modeled in Iraq — failure to acknowledge age-old blood feuds, failure to prevent looting after the fall of Baghdad, failure to scope out the magnitude of securing a country the size of California in a power void — none approached the failure to treat this as an actual war, rather than something possibly on a video screen.

      As they rolled off to war, I wonder how many of the 18- to 20-somethings in the tanks and personnel carriers harbored recollections of  "Adventures of GI Joe," the popular TV cartoon series of their youth. In it, gunfire was ceaseless, and harmless, kicking up sand and melting into the backdrop. It was the kind of war anyone would sign up to fight.

    Likely most of them knew they weren't embarking on that, a cartoon show. What were we thinking?    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.







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