A Costly Chill in the Air

From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, the United States Armed Forces have left bullets and boot prints all over the world, building enough square mileage of domestic military installations to rival the state of Ohio. A smaller but strategically placed Rhode Island-sized network is spread over forty foreign countries.

“We have this tendency in the United States when we go into a country, we never want to leave,” U.S. Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) said at a press conference hosted by the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, on June 23. There are 54,000 American troops in Germany, 32,000 in Japan. American service men and women number nearly 30,000 in South Korea. “That war ended before I was born,” McGovern said.

Together with U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), McGovern sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which would have required articulated benchmarks in the timeline for the withdrawal of 100,000 troops from Afghanistan. President Obama ordered 33,000 out by September 2012, hoping to hand the reigns of security to the local government by 2014. The congressmen called the plan “insufficient.”

“I am of the firm belief that 2014 becomes 2015; 2015 becomes 2016, and we’re still there with over 20,000 troops,” Jones said.

The United States government invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Bin Laden is now dead, and the CIA estimates that less than 100 al-Qaeda members are currently operating in Afghanistan.

“Why the hell do we need 100,000 troops to deal with al-Qaeda?” McGovern asked.

Operations in Iraq reveal that ending a war isn’t the same as finishing one. The combat mission ended a year ago, but soldiers are still dying. They’re on schedule to leave the country by the end of 2011, but the White House is offering to let 10,000 remain.

The money spent on Overseas Contingency Operations (formerly called the War on Terror) is more than all U.S. debt held by China. America’s military-industrial complex will cost $671 billion for 2012—the first year of this century that military spending will be lower than the year before it. And yet the figure is more than double the Defense Department’s 2001 budget.

But no equation could measure the sacrifice of 5,000 American hometowns, 6,000 dead soldiers and 44,000 wounded in action. Many injured soldiers take shrapnel in their eyes from Improvised Explosive Devices. They suffer from brain injuries and severe head trauma. Private First Class Corey Kent, whom Jones visited at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, lost both his legs and some fingers.

“Most of these wounds that I saw… if it was Vietnam they’d be dead. They never would have gotten home,” Jones said. “What type of quality of life are they going to have if Uncle Sam is financially broke and cannot help them?”

Complete accounts of civilian deaths are nowhere to be found though several organizations have tried. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reports that the first six months of 2011 were 15 percent more deadly for civilians than the same period in 2010. Anti-government elements are mostly responsible, but sometimes the good guys shoot waywardly.

But even if we could tally all the lives lost, if we bandage the wounds and count the beans—can we even say what victory would look like?

“No one can really tell you what it means to win. Or what it is that we’re trying to do. We’ve been there for almost ten years and we’ve probably had at least ten different rationales as to what our mission is,” McGovern said.

Coalition forces have served many roles in Afghanistan. They’ve been drug cops, nation-builders, and guard dogs of the world’s oil supply. They’ve fought insurgents and tried to stabilize a country famous for its instability.

Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, called the Arab Spring, could further complicate the area. Obama responded with a pledge “to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” He outlined some of the “diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools” that would support this top priority, but as the no-fly zone in Libya demonstrates, military might is always an option.

The citizens of six Arab nations have different priorities. In July, Zogby International released a poll of people in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Respondents said the biggest obstacles to peace and stability are “U.S. interference in the Arab world” and the “continuing occupation of Palestinian lands.” Only in the UAE did a majority of people rate the Arab Spring positively. Many said it is too soon to tell, which suggests that democracy may not be the golden ideal it is in America.

In response to the question: “Does the killing of Osama bin Laden make you more or less favorable towards the United States, or does it have no impact on your attitude?” a majority of citizens in five of the countries and 50 percent in the UAE chose “less favorable.”

Regarding the United States’ presence in the Middle East, and specifically the eventual pullout of troops from Afghanistan, Rep. McGovern surmised, “This is a very, very complicated situation… There’s no nice, happy ending where everybody holds hands and sings ‘Kumbaya. It’s gonna be messy.”

The truth is, war is only neat and tidy on spreadsheets. Facts and figures sterilize the consequences. The behemoth forms the background, and the devil I know is better than the one I don’t.

The public doesn’t vote on the size and scope of the military. The military expands for our protection. It invades to promote freedom. And it requires things like $20 billion a year to keep troops in Iraq and Afghanistan air-conditioned. What good is a vigilant eye against an entity of these proportions and the will to seek its own objectives? It’s a chilling question, to say the least.