Seven service members are killed when their Blackhawk is shot down. Three Marines die at the hands of their host when he turns his gun on them. A new Afghan trainee is given a loaded rifle, then immediately turns it on his American trainers and shoots two of them dead. Within a matter of days 12 of our sons are slaughtered by our supposed allies in a war that has long lost its meaning.
We have grown cold and indifferent, much like we did during the last years of the Vietnam War. Boredom has set in. We have other concerns to worry about. How about them Lakers landing Superman? A wonder team for the ages. The Dodgers are in second place. It was a pleasant summer.
But I remember how I felt in the summer of 1969 in the middle of a war that everyone wished would simply go away. Tens of thousands of my fellow brethren were still to die in a war that the powers in Washington knew was lost. At least another million Asians would also perish. The only thing all that suffering accomplished was the further radicalization of locals — the Khmer Rouge who were to go on a genocidal killing spree. Those additional years of needless slaughter piling on never-ending sorrow for veterans and their families.
All that pain and suffering were self-contained. Most Americans were never directly affected by that war. The veterans were shunned as messengers of bad news and reminders of the evil conducted on their behalf. The grieving families were left alone with aching hearts and questions: Why? Who is the last man to die in a war?
A war fought in the name of the American people who mostly were too distracted, too worn down, too bored by tales of woe in a far-off land. And finally, tragically: Why was it my son, our son, to be the last to die in that hellhole?
It’s 2012 and Vietnam is relived as a cruelly indifferent morality play, and 80,000 of our sons and daughters are placed and left in harm’s way and forgotten — again the war doesn’t affect us personally. It’s not even mentioned at the Republican National Convention. The presidential candidates hardly ever mention the Afghanistan War at all. If they do it is in generalities and polite political sound bites. Same goes for the senatorial and congressional wannabes. The war is simply too depressing and defies our self-constructed political paradigms.
The Taliban are evil and dope smugglers. But then again, so are many of our supposed allied militias. It is these same militias in which we now see some of their members turning their guns on our sons and daughters — killing some, wounding others. Who is the enemy? The Taliban? Or our supposed militia allies? Or perhaps it is the corrupt practices of the Karzai government that fuels the insurgency? Or is it simply the presence of foreign troops that justifies to some never-ending war?
But before we turn our backs on our sons and daughters in uniform and condemn them to isolation and irrelevance like we did Vietnam veterans, let us be honest and at least face the brutal facts: The suicide rate in the Army is at an all-time high. “Twenty-six active-duty soldiers killed themselves in July, compared to 12 in June,” according to The Associated Press. Eight active-duty Marines killed themselves in July for a total of 32 for 2012 — the same amount that was for all of 2011. Suicide rates among veterans are at scandalous highs. Forty-five percent of the veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are seeking help for the traumas that no one should have to face and in particular face alone. And, 400,000 have sought some form of psychological help.
We do not have the moral right to simply turn our backs and let the politicos in Washington decide when it is politically expedient to bring our troops home. They should have been home yesterday. As a democracy we cannot blame anyone other than ourselves. We cannot be bored or lackadaisical about this war. The Vietnam experience must not be relived again.
Isolation becomes aloneness. Betrayed ideals crush faith. Trust in society, friends and families is corrosively eaten away — and it hurts. It adds another reason to withdraw and become consumed with what we did, with what we saw; the exposed and cynical lies — the cruelty of war. Suicide becomes a quieting answer.
Ignoring the harsh realities of war and its aftermath is betrayal. Every candidate from either party that we encounter, especially those belonging to the same party, in addition to ourselves must be confronted. He or she must not be allowed to sidestep the question: When do our children come home, for it is our children not theirs in harm’s way?
Platitudes and niceties won’t cut it. Only hard answers are acceptable. A simple phone call, an email or a postcard directed to our senators, congressperson or president doesn’t take much effort. Neither does a letter to an online news outlet or even a newspaper.
In a democracy we have only ourselves to blame. We are “condemned to be free.” The solution — the blame — stops with each and every one of us. Real lives of our sons and daughters today and tomorrow depend on it, and the lives of our veterans 10, 20 years down the road after the guns have fallen silent everywhere except in their heads are in the balance.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.