An American war story

DUNEDIN

He is finally home. He is a soldier in the Army. He went to Afghanistan for 15 months the first time. He went to Afghanistan for 12 months the second time. It now appears that he has been assigned to a stateside position that will probably keep him in the States for the next three years.

He is about as nice a young man as you could find. He is as decent and caring a person as you could know. He is an Army doctor and has seen the effects of war and the results of armed conflict on U.S. soldiers and on the people of Afghanistan.

On his first tour of duty he was stationed on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan bordering Pakistan where he was regularly subjected to mortar attacks. I was talking to him one night and in the middle of our conversation he told me he had to interrupt the telephone call because he had to go get in a trench since the base he was in had just come under mortar attack. He was there for 15 months and saw things that no one who is not, or ever has been in the military service should ever have to see.

His name is Scott and he is married to my daughter, Jennifer. They presently have a 3-year-old son who was born in the middle of his first tour in Afghanistan. The Army gave him leave so that he could come home and be present at the birth of his child. I thought that was a great kindness and showed a compassionate side of the Army that I did not know existed. Four days after his son's birth, Scott had to return to Afghanistan.

When he came home from that first tour he was a different person. Not quite as light-hearted as when he left. He told us about life there and showed us some pictures of things that he had seen and done while in Afghanistan. His commander during his first tour reached out to the local Afghans and provided them with a couple of hours of medical care at the clinic that Scott ran on the side of that mountain. His stories of how the Afghans treated their own regarding medical care and the great disparity between medical care for the men and for the women opened my eyes to conditions in the world that I was not really aware existed.

After he returned, Scott was assigned as brigade surgeon to the 101st Airborne, 1st Brigade Combat Team. He spent some of his time learning how to jump out of an airplane so that he could serve in an airborne brigade, and he spent several months organizing medical services for the 101st when it deployed to Afghanistan. On his second deployment, he was assigned to a large military facility, although this duty still required frequent helicopter trips to outlying posts to ensure that the Army provided good medical care at that level.

The home front

Here in Dunedin during those two deployments my daughter, Jennifer, raised their son. The stresses on her, although much different from those that Scott was experiencing, were nevertheless very difficult to handle. Apparently, this is a common experience for most military families who send a member of the family into a war zone. She dealt with it with grace, determination, hard work and patience that would make any father very proud. She is an outstanding soldier's wife. The strain on her, however, was apparent and she was lonely, saddened and deeply unhappy with her husband's absence. Nevertheless, she persevered and when Scott came home he was greeted with a well-organized home, a very well-raised child and a loving wife. He was a lucky man, since I understand many such relationships are badly broken or destroyed during lengthy deployments.

My daughter and her husband were able to keep in almost daily contact through Skype, telephone calls and other available communications that let each of them know how the other was doing and, at the same time, regular communication probably heightened the sense of separation. The Army is doing so much better in this war than in previous wars in attempting to protect military families from the extraordinary stresses of separation and fear for the loved one in harm's way. Even so, military suicides are up and military families are at great risk.

Far from home

On the home front during Scott's deployments, the people I know spent very little time discussing the war in Afghanistan. It hardly ever touched their lives in any meaningful way. The goodwill towards our soldiers, Marines and Air Force personnel is so much better than when I served during the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, the war touches most of us very little, if at all, in our daily lives, and it is easy for us to forget that it even exists — except for those who have family members or close friends in the war zone.

That this war is terribly damaging to Americans is so obvious that it hardly needs to be said. Most of us are by now immune to the deaths of these young men and women since the war has gone on for more than 10 years and such deaths and losses are an accepted part of everyday life. We have become numb to the huge human tragedy that each death brings.

And what of the young men and women who have been horribly maimed, burned or forever emotionally changed by their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq? For each of those soldiers, there are parents, wives, brothers, sisters, extended family members and friends who are impacted by those terrible injuries. In addition to the 50,000 soldiers who have been horribly wounded or otherwise affected by the war there are probably close to half a million people who have felt some part of that pain. The war is having a broader impact than I think most people are aware.

What of the billions of dollars spent on this war? I read about three years ago that if we took the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for one year and set those billions aside for health care purposes, the United States could supply health care to every American who is otherwise not covered by medical insurance — and this is the shocker — forever. If that statistic is true, what have we done to ourselves as a nation?

The wrong wars, not won

I will tell you what I think we have done. We have placed an unfair economic burden on our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. I am deeply ashamed that my country has done this to our future generations. It was money wasted in an extremely questionable cause given the fact that there were never any weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq or Afghanistan. We were led down a road paved with lies and we have poured massive amounts of our national wealth and the wealth of generations to follow into a war that cannot be "won" in any conventional sense of the meaning of that term.

We aren't going to win this war. This is no such thing as winning. I guess like Vietnam, we will declare victory and leave Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Those countries will return to the tribal and ethnic chaos that was their way of life before we came. In Afghanistan at least, the brutal treatment of women and no sense of itself as a nation leads me to believe that there will not, at any time in the near future, be a unified country and certainly not a democracy.

It is arrogant of the United States to assume that everybody ought to be a democracy. The Afghans, and every other country in the world, should be able to make an independent decision as to what it wants to be and how it wants its affairs run. I am very well aware that we would find some of those choices execrable and inhumane, but it is not my right nor the right of the United States to tell other people in other countries with other traditions and other belief structures how they should live or what they should believe.

I don't feel I have that right to force my ideas on my neighbors, much less on the people in a country that is so different than mine to the point that I cannot understand their thinking on many of these subjects. Why are we so arrogant that we think we know best? We have done it with guns and tanks and bombs and that doesn't seem to have worked very well. Centuries of war in Afghanistan have yielded largely the same result for every invading army — defeat and massive cost.

Ultimately, every people in the world must determine by whatever the means what type of government they will have and what their social norms will be. Just as our country had its revolution in 1776, each nation will ultimately have its "Arab Spring." The overwhelming force of international communications with the advent of more and more sophisticated, inexpensive and efficient devices will ultimately inform even the most ignorant, economically depressed and socially constrained societies (think of North Korea) what life is like in other parts of the world. They will become dissatisfied and will eventually militate for change. This is the course of history. We cannot impose our view of how life ought to be on other nations.

Ten minutes after we leave Afghanistan, that country will revert to its tribal customs and will ultimately revert to a struggle between various religious, tribal and ethnic interests in that country until some type of resolution is reached. This is equally true in Iraq, the other countries of the Arab world and Iran. Leave them alone and let them go at it!

So far I have only expressed my view of the sad situation my country has gotten itself into. However, I have a solution.

The solution

If we decide we are going to go to war and have thousands of Americans die or be grievously wounded in order to invade other people's countries, there should be some basic ground rules.

First: The first action should be that Congress declares war in a formalized way on that other country or that other group or people. There would be no slipping into such a war as we did in Vietnam or as was largely the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. There would be a defining point when the entire Congress, both the Senate and the House of Representatives, votes on a joint resolution declaring the war and authorizing the president to direct the military forces of the United States to attack the then-perceived enemy. In the heat of the moment, this may not be all that difficult given the slippery nature of our senators and representatives on issues of this nature. They would vote in favor of anything that they thought would bring them votes.

The Senate, at least, is supposed to be deliberative and cautious in making these types of decisions and not allow the heat of the moment or public fervor push them into some type of behavior that would be ultimately bad for the country. Passionate mobs don't make good decisions, but elected representatives are supposed to be more cautious about foreign adventures. Sadly, this has not taken place in at least the last ten years.

Any elected person who was opposed to the war was called unpatriotic. This is a sad reflection on American political life. Our elected representatives should be allowed to act and feel differently without being thought of as being less an American. In fact, the people who disagree with the majority are more important to a rational decision than those who automatically agree. There is a problem, however. It is easy for Congress to declare war by following the popular passions of the moment.

Second: To solve this problem (the second part of my solution), I would require that each war that Congress enters into be required to be financed on a "pay as you go" basis. By that, I mean each Congress as a condition to a declaration of war would have to pass laws necessary to tax the people of the United States to pay for the entire cost of each year of that war from the budget adopted for that year. No more passing off the costs of these adventures to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. If you want to go kill somebody else, you are going to have to pay for it. We permitted it to occur and we would all have to pay for it contemporaneously. If the Congress can't raise the necessary money to finance the military decision, then we can't have the war.

It is my opinion that I personally have suffered little or no economic impact in my life because of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If it was "pay as you go," my taxes might have been doubled or tripled and that certainly would have caught my attention. Perhaps I would have been less bellicose if I knew I would have to pay for it and couldn't pass that cost off to future generations. Why shouldn't we be financially responsible for our decisions? This wasn't a decision that my 3-year-old grandchild made; it was a decision that the people who are my elected representatives made. Why should my grandchildren have to pay my debt?

Third: I have one final suggestion that I think might sober up the country when it is inclined to go adventuring in foreign climes. At the same time the country declared war and passed the budget to finance it, I would also institute a universal draft applicable to all men and women over the age of 18 and under the age of 35.

I remember what it was like during the Vietnam War. If there hadn't been a universal draft, I very much doubt that the resistance to the war would have been so fervent. No exceptions to draft status. No exception for going to school or being rich, or coming from an influential family. Everyone is at risk of being drafted. Everyone is at risk of being killed. If you support the war, then your sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and everyone else in your family within the age limitation might have to serve in a combat zone.

The present volunteer army, although I believe it to have been a success, does not truly represent a wide spectrum of Americans. Approximately 1 percent of Americans serve in our military forces. We shouldn't be allowed to send other people's sons and daughters to die, be horribly wounded or be negatively psychologically affected by the horrors of modern warfare. Sadly, I think we must rely on the concept of selfish self-interest to make us stop and think before we invade other countries.

I have no disagreement with foreign wars, if they are absolutely critical to our self-interest as a nation, there is no other reasonably viable choice and everybody participates. It would be fun to suggest that as another requirement for going to war that every member of Congress and the upper levels of the then administration would have to send one member of their immediate family to serve actively in the war zone. Why is it that most of the chest-beaters and the people who impugn other people's patriotism are almost always the last people whose families are at risk in a war zone?

Back home

Well, he's back home and is safe as he can be if someone is telling him he has to parachute out of an airplane on a regular basis. He graduated from West Point, the Army put him through medical school and he serves willingly, with a sense of purpose, dedication to his country and his fellow soldiers. He is a wonderful husband and father. My daughter is an excellent military wife who works hard to overcome the tribulations and difficulties that ultimately follow an overseas assignment. My son-in-law treats the soldiers and dependants under his care with compassion and dedication. They are fine people and I am very proud of them.

Maybe, somehow, we can get smarter. Staying in Afghanistan at the extremely high cost in human life and national treasure should be ended tomorrow. Don't forget that many, many thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have died or been mutilated or killed. We have certainly not won their "hearts and minds." Let's declare victory and leave. Let's encourage the next generation not to repeat the mistakes of my generation. You and I are each individually responsible for what has happened. We should shoulder that responsibility and move on.

John G. Hubbard, who served as a captain in the Air Force from 1967 to 1971 and as a special agent in the Office of Special Investigations, is a lawyer in the firm of Frazer, Hubbard, Brandt, Trask, Yacavone, Metz and Daigneault in Dunedin. He was Dunedin's city attorney for 37 years before retiring in April.

An American war story 10/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 2:10pm]

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