Partisan wonks who never saw a scintilla of combat have been twisting themselves into knots over the past six years to prove they have as much blood lust as anyone else. Ignoring their own Ivy League pedigrees as their smooth hands plot over keyboards, they now revel in the latest Rovian excursion: that not only is the country still divided, but it is now split between brave patriots defending hearth and home, and bookish ninnies who wouldn’t know a bayonet from brioche.
According to Michael Barone, who spends nearly 5,000 words parsing out states and districts with good guys (Americans with a “fighting” Jacksonian ancestry) and those that have none (Americans in college towns and urban centers, anywhere with strong concentrations of public employees and most of the northeast, where a glass of chardonnay on a white flag is the apparent heraldry), the fight for the next president of the United States comes down to which candidate has the bigger stones:
Of course, the real Jacksonian in this race is John McCain … He is descended from Scots-Irish fighters who settled in Carroll County, Miss. Former Sen. Trent Lott … once told me that he had relatives who had known McCain’s relatives in Mississippi. “They were fighters,” he said, as best I can remember his words. “They would never stop fighting you. Those people would never stop fighting.” Obama gives the impression, through his demeanor and through his statements on Iraq, that he would never start fighting. That appeals enormously to voters in the academia and public-employee enclaves of America, who want to deny honor to our warriors and arrogate it to themselves … “
It must be nice to be so far away from an actual battlefield as to continue romanticizing it. If not, Barone and others would see that Americans – Jacksonians and all – aren’t incapable, they’re just plain tired of fighting, as evidenced, in part, by the recent 81 percent “wrong track” poll numbers.
Sure, the current economy has plundered our faith, but a creeping resignation, a growing sense that we have sent another generation of kids off to a war with no end in sight, only to return with shattered minds and broken, missing limbs, back to fractured families, burdened communities – has settled in like a virus, affecting people all over the country, even those parts with the “right” ancestry.
This war malaise manifests itself in different ways of course, but to deny it exists is to be plain tone deaf, and in the long run, dangerous.
Tens of thousands of Americans will descend on the war monuments in Washington this spring. More fitting as a field trip stop is the World War II Memorial, muscular and abstract. Move down to the Korean War Memorial, where the stone soldiers, their faces blanched with terror and exhaustion march through an impenetrable battlefield, in a war that’s been called a draw, expending 36,516 American lives, with more than 8,000 missing in action, plod through the mists.
There is always a certain hush at The Wall, the Vietnam War memorial that lists the more than 58,000 American dead by name. People know. It is raw. It’s design couldn’t be more apt, for the war itself remains an open gash across the heart of the nation. Not only for the lives that were lost, but for the way veterans of this war were treated when they returned.
So open is this wound that it is of a constant surprise to me that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are still but mere afterthoughts in today’s political discourse and in the mainstream media – particularly television news — which throughout the war has been accused by the rightwing as being too liberal and too sympathetic to the anti-war cause. No medium has been more successful at withholding the true horrors of war from public consumption, and as a result, the very warriors who only Barone’s “Jacksonians” are presumed to honor, are marginalized by the deception.
For proponents of the Bush war strategy, this has been a boon. So as not to fall into the Rovian trap and appear wobbly on war, Obama and Hillary Clinton, too, have made but brief references to returning soldiers on the trail. Like good Democrats, they have a list of policy remedies, which are commendable and welcome, but missing has been real fist-pounding passion or a serious effort in making soldiers and veterans key planks in an agenda for change — not just niche issues. At the February Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in veteran-rich Virginia, for example, Obama uttered the word “veteran” zero times, while Clinton spoke it twice.
The result? No one talks about veterans. They hardly exist. Strained, self-conscious “human moments” from our presidential candidates hardly come for soldiers sent to Iraq with untested body armor or the growing body count. Republican John McCain, the veterans’ veteran, plainly has no political stake in talking about it, though he has one son now serving in Iraq. In his big foreign policy speech in Los Angeles two weeks ago he flew through a dozen lines about shedding a tear for the ugliness of war and how it shouldn’t be glorified, before getting to the good stuff: the Islamic extremists and the transcendental struggle of our time. Sad thing is, war in our time would get a whole lot uglier if President McCain were to wage it with our current force strength.
Think about the last time you were taken by news camera down the wards of Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital. Remember all the footage of brave amputees re-learning to walk, exercising on the machines, in the hospital gym? It was about a year ago, in fact – that’s when the Washington Post launched its series on the deplorable conditions our servicemen and women were forced to endure at Walter Reed. Then, as Donald Fagen croons sardonically, “we dolly back, we fade to black.”
Since then, 11 soldiers have died in the Wounded Warriors ward established after that series broke. Hospital administrators admit there is a problem with pill addition, and alcohol. In fact, suicide among soldiers and veterans overall has become an issue, while the Department of Veterans Affairs has been forced to admit that 20 percent of their patients from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Furthermore, veterans’ groups have launched a landmark class action suit against the VA over waiting lists, a backlog of over 400,000 disability claims, funding and the inability to provide prompt mental heath care to vets.
Meanwhile, it is completely ignored that aside from 4,020 US deaths, there have been 44,229 cases in which our men and women have been injured or sick enough to be medically transported from the battlefield. Medical advances have allowed for a ratio of one death for every 16 soldiers wounded – much better than the one death for every 2.6 wounded in Vietnam. But the wounded are coming home with a lifetime of medical care ahead of them. Polytrauma centers have sprung up across the country to accommodate them, and research and treatment for elusive and devastating traumatic brain injury (thanks to the IED) are in growing demand.
More than 3,569 military children have lost a parent since 9/11, and 700,000 wait for a one to return from the war. Divorce, confusion, struggling to understand the stranger in their midst – and now, reportedly, challenges in finding well-paying jobs — that’s what many families are dealing with today. They battle a Pentagon that wants to chisel them out of disability benefits. Wives and parents become resigned to shuttling their once-proud soldier back and forth to the VA for PTSD, chronic pain, or the TBI that has left them unemployable and in some cases, unreachable. There, they stand in line for a laundry list of meds, wondering if this is all there is.
It is certainly a sobering snapshot. Just the fact we are asking less than 1 percent of our population to fight this war guarantees that many of us will never see this world up close, and that, more importantly, if the war does not end, the same men and women will revolve in and out of theater while their chances for a normal life dangle in the crossing.
If we do not insist this is a more pressing issue, than say, whether Obama can bowl or playing Hollywood Superdelegate Squares, wonkish partisans, without a scintilla of combat experience, will continue to define not only the fault lines of possibly the most important presidential election of our time, but define who real Americans are according to their ability to win a street fight, and not necessarily, by how they pick up the pieces when the brawl is over. Or learn their lessons.
Then 40 years from now, their unreconstructed successors, writing about the ongoing Global War on Terror, will wax nostalgic about the “Bushians,” who despite all politics and public opinion, never stopped fighting.