“Call of Duty.” “Assassins Creed.” We have turned war into a game. The blood flows easily and in brilliant red, but that blood isn’t real.
But there is real blood that is shed. War is not a game. Real people, both the citizens of Afghanistan and our own sons and daughters, fight them. War may be other dimensional for those who sit safely in Washington and who never tire of never-ending, low-intensity conflict. But it is very real and personal to the Marines and soldiers and their families who are the boots on the ground as it is to the locals whom the politically correct like to refer to as “collateral damage” — a rather quaint and antiseptic saying for charred flesh and shrapnel shredded bodies, that is if enough of what was once a human being can be found.
The brutality that is war is all too real for the soldiers and Marines who must carry out ill-advised and ill-conceived military adventures abroad. They are not computer-generated, three-dimensional virtual reality warriors. They are our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives, our aunts and uncles. They are the kids next door who can’t afford the ever-escalating cost of higher education, so they enlist to pay for it. They are the boys and girls in school who fail to learn the lessons of Vietnam — perhaps because they aren’t taught. The same way that the lies, untruths and make-believe WMDs are conveniently forgotten.
Some volunteer because of the supposed glory of combat. Others enlist to defend against an elusive enemy that shifts almost daily depending if we are nation-building, fighting an insurgency or conducting a proxy war against an enemy based in Pakistan. Or do we fight the Taliban because they are a threat to the corrupt Kabul government and the warlords — some of whom run drugs the same way drugs were run during the Vietnam War? Assuredly we don’t fight the ongoing war in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda, which is now based in Pakistan and elsewhere. Or do we simply fight because that is what we do, who we have become?
Let me propose a new national enemy since we seem to demand a new one constantly. The new national enemy is apathy. The apathy we have for ongoing wars. The apathy that we show for the real costs of constant wars that are before us, yet we always seem to forget when the few call us into new wars of choice. The apathy we hide behind when the price is too much for some to bear. The apathy we engage in when suicide is epidemic among our kin serving in the armed forces.
According to the Department of Defense, suicides in the armed forces surged to a record high of 349 in 2012 — more than the 295 service men and women killed in Afghanistan that year. In comparison, 301 took their own lives in 2011. After having leveled off in 2010 and 2011, the sudden acceleration in suicides caught the Pentagon by surprise. Surprise? Really? What part of post-traumatic stress disorder is not understood? The first word is post: meaning after-the-fact.
Many Vietnam vets still struggle with PTSD so many years after that disaster. And now Iraq and Afghanistan vets are following in our footsteps. Is there any wonder? The only difference between them and Vietnam vets is that they are not despised as we were, and their wars are lost a little at a time rather than all at once with the whole world watching.
To confront the evil that man is capable of, to witness the carnage and suffer the soul damage that violence inflicts always costs. When the speeches become hollow and the music mute, the combat veteran faces alone the horrors of war that are hidden for everyone else but him or her. When quiet solitude comes in the early morning hours for those without combat experiences, that is the time when a symphony of sounds — the moaning of the wounded, the quiet of the dead — obsesses our existence. The startle reflex to loud noises and sounds that remind one of bombs becomes deeply ingrained over time. Disfigured flesh, the eyes that see death stalking them, the cries of grown men calling for their mothers will forever be with the combat vet.
So when the patriot calls for endless war, calls us yet again to invest our country’s children stop and think. The costs are ongoing — maybe not for you. Maybe you can hide behind the apathy and pretend, but the cost will be paid for in flesh and blood and in the damaged minds and wounded souls of those put in harm’s way by apathy.
A just released study by the Department of Defense of suicide rates among veterans found that it had undercounted this rate by 22 percent. Previously it had reported 18 suicides daily among veterans. For the years 1999 through 2010, the actual rate was 22 deaths a day —or one veteran who kills himself every 65 minutes. Sixty-nine percent of these deaths were among veterans age 50 or older. Those who die by their own hands are not included on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.