Friday, February 09, 2007

Our Fight, Like it or Not
I'm most of the way through The Assassins' Gate, George Packer's 2005 account of the Iraq war. Like Fiasco, the Thomas Ricks book mostly detailing the military experience in Iraq, Packer's book inspires equal parts bafflement and fury, and in its more detailed examination of the intellectual underpinnings of the decision to go to war, it calls to mind the old Daniel Patrick Moynihan line that "There are some mistakes only someone with a Ph.D. can make."

Whether you call them mistakes or failures of morality or imagination, the "defense intellectuals," neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists, who drove us into this war with what I consider mostly noble intentions, put in harm's way hundreds of thousands of Americans, and some much greater number of Iraqis. But both the organization of the military and the fragmentation of society have meant that the domestic impact of this conflict, and the ripple effects through society, have been much more concentrated than ever has been the case before. I went out for drinks last night with three colleagues, and we got to talking about Iraq; I asked if any of them personally knew anyone who had served. None of them did. I know one man, the brother of a good friend, who enlisted as a Marine grunt in late 2005 and spent nine months on patrols and other extremely hazardous duties; through good fortune, he rotated home last fall uninjured. His circumstances, though, were almost unique: a Stanford graduate, working at a DC think tank, who got frustrated with all the complaining about the war (which he personally opposed) and just decided to get involved. It was, to my mind, both incredibly admirable and almost incomprehensible.

Everybody professes support for the troops, and I tend to believe that they mean it. But talk, of course, is cheap; few of us have offered anything beyond words, and, shamefully, our government hasn't asked us to do so--unless you count Tom DeLay's profession that nothing is more important in wartime than tax cuts, or George W. Bush's sympathy for everyone who's had to sit through bummer TV images from the combat zone.

This guest op-ed in Friday's NYT, by the wife of an Iraq war vet, makes this point far more eloquently than I could, and suggests the proper response:

Though some claim that all Americans are making sacrifices for the war on terrorism, it’s just not true. The few who are sent to fight and those left behind who are an intimate part of their daily lives are the ones whose mental health, finances and relationships are taking the hit.

A universal draft would certainly help spread the sacrifice. But we all know that the privileged will find a way to avoid serving, as they did by paying $300 during the Civil War or claiming college deferments during Vietnam.

What we need is a war tax, dedicated to financing the support services needed by military families and combat veterans. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a long-term costs-of-war tax. Because the tax I’m proposing, like the needs it’s intended to meet, will not end when the war does.

Historically, war taxes are how America finances its military conflicts — taxes on income, beverages, tobacco, utilities and more. The federal government first imposed what became a 3 percent tax on long-distance telephone calls in 1898 to help pay for the Spanish-American War. Since then, it’s been repealed, most recently last summer, and reinstated several times.
If a phone tax were reinstated, or a tax on oil or clothing — something we use in proportion to our income — then all Americans would wind up shouldering at least a small portion of the burden of our nation’s wars. Military families would be exempt.

Unlike the old phone tax, however, this new tax must be dedicated to financing programs that support and heal combat veterans and their families during deployment and afterward — combat trauma counseling, respite child care, part-time jobs for spouses trying to make ends meet, marriage counseling. These programs have always suffered from meager budgets, and while the public’s interest will inevitably move on, the needs won’t go away as long as America has a military.

I couldn't agree more with this. The Bush administration and the Congress--Republican-run through the first four years of the war, in Democratic hands now--have compounded their disastrous management of the war, and near-total lack of interest in accountability and oversight, by shoddy treatment of those who have sacrificed the most, during and after their service, and by allowing those individuals and their families to bear all the costs. (We'll all pay later, I guess, considering that this conflict has been fought "off the books"; that's immoral too.) I guess it's consistent with the general Republican philosophy that each of us is essentially on our own, that collective action is at best unnecessary and at worst immoral, and that government has no real community role at all aside from providing basic security and, in most but not all cases, ensuring that private property is sacrosanct.

But we are a community. Whatever one thinks of their mission, those Americans in uniform aren't just fighting for their families, or for a paycheck, or for corporate profits. All those things might be true, but in some sense they're also defending our ideals and values. We all should help foot the bill--and if this slight fiscal imposition acts in future as something of a check against engaging in dumb-assed wars just because some simpleton president feels his balls are in question, or a vice-president sees an opportunity to redraw a map or service a former employer's balance sheet, or a bunch of crypto-Trotskyites with messianic delusions envision a chance to commit heroic revolution by proxy, so much the better.

No comments: