At What Price War?

| March 18, 2012 | 2 Comments

On March 11th, Staff Sergeant Robert Bates of Lake Tapps, Washington, single-handedly entered the villages of Alkozai and Balandi outside Kandahar in the Panjwai District of Afghanistan. The Iraq–Afghanistan veteran barged into village homes and randomly killed 16 men, women and children.  Nine victims were children. Eleven victims were members of one extended family. The Marine then set fire to a number of the victims.  Upon returning to his base, the Sergeant surrendered to military authorities.  He offered no explanation for his actions.

On March 10th, the day before the shootings, Bates witnessed a friend step on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and lose his leg. That night, he reportedly over indulged whole drinking with his mates. Bates is an eleven-year marine veteran. In 2002, a civil court in Tacoma, Washington, ordered Bates to attend 20 hours of anger management courses.  He completed the course and the case was dismissed.

“I know not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”   Albert Einstein

The Sergeant married in 2005. He and his wife have two young children.  He returned from his third tour in Iraq last year and was told he would not be returning to combat. For some reason, he was soon assigned to a fourth tour of combat duty in late 2011.

Originally, there were reports that his marriage was failing.  These allegations proved to be inaccurate.  Upon questioning by the media, neighbors expressed disbelief that their neighbor could commit such an act.  He was described as a good guy, humorous and responsible. Upon receiving his orders for Afghanistan, Bates told a consoling neighbor, “It’s what I do.”

Bates received rigorous sniper training.  The marine sniper program is unlike most combat experiences.  Snipers often work behind enemy lines, or in this case, in hot zones.  Most snipers work independently or in teams of two with little support until extraction. Snipers are trained to survive and to kill without reason or justification.  The role of the sniper often defies logical explanation.

Bates was assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division. His unit is based at Fort Lewis-McCord.  Before arriving in Afghanistan, Bates had served three tours of duty in Iraq.

During his service in Iraq, Bates suffered two battle wounds. He suffered a concussion when a vehicle in which he was riding struck an IED. Later, he incurred a battle wound that necessitated surgery to remove part of his foot.  Bates is described by his attorney, as “highly decorated.”

“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”  Jose  Narkosky

Sergeant Bates arrived in Afghanistan in December.  On February 1, he was assigned to the Panjwai province.  His mission was to work with other marines and villagers to create a security network to be deployed when the NATO forces leave the country.

Bates is presently in the military’s only secure penal facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a tragic place for a decorated veteran. Ironically, Bates arrived at prison 44 years to the day of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Many Americans seek parallels to Afghanistan-Iraq experience and our occupation of Vietnam.

Sergeant Bates took the lives of innocent civilians. Lieutenant William Calley orchestrated an even more sinister war crime in March 1968. We may never know what triggered the breakdown in either soldier. There are those that will say Bates was a victim of extensive time in two different combat zones.  He was burned out.  This is not a question of immoral actions.  This is a tragic incidence in the breakdown of an 11-year veteran. It would by foolish to try to unravel the facts of his case.  Like My Lai, the facts will defy conventional law or the Code of Honor.

After Vietnam, it seemed impossible that the US would ever engage in another occupation where the civilian population resented our presence. Most Viet vets thought we had learned this is a formula for disaster.  What the Bates tragedy exemplifies are the inconsistent strategies that have left our servicemen and servicewomen in a no-win situation where the very persons they protect are friendly by day and enemies by night.

The longer this conflict goes on, the stronger the similarities with Vietnam will become.  We have placed our soldiers who are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters in the line of fire. The next innocent looking Afghan could be the person that harms, cripples or murders a comrade.  As in Vietnam, that innocent looking native could be wrapped in explosives or carrying a satchel bomb.  Our volunteer army faces a distinct language barrier.  Like Vietnam, the language barrier leads to suspicion and distrust.

As existed with the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN’s), there is distrust between the Afghan army and the US soldiers.  Like Vietnam, there is distrust between our ground forces and Washington. It is difficult to express the betrayal felt by ground forces in Vietnam when President Johnson ceased the bombing of North Vietnam on November 1, 1968, eight months after the Tet Offensive that killed more than 10,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese.  Trucks with headlights shining sped down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

On April 25, 2011, a feature story that did not receive enough coverage involved the Afghan security force that took over security in a prison in Kandahar on or about April 1st, 2011. Twenty-four days later, 500 Taliban prisoners escaped through a tunnel that extended beyond the wire. One night all prisoners went to bed and by dawn there was not one prisoner in the jail.  There is little doubt that the escapees had “inside” help.  Every single prisoner escaped.  Is that even possible?

Both the Afghan government and the Ky and Thieu regimes in Vietnam were hopelessly corrupt.  Is there any doubt that Afghan President Hamid Karzai uses his role to perpetuate his personal interests?  Does this not sound like Vietnam revisited?

Karzai issued a statement on Friday calling for the US to stay in their compounds and give way to the Afghan security forces during 2013. He told reporters,  “This has been going on too long. You have heard me before.  It is by all means the end of the rope here.” Personally, the only argument here is why wait one more day?

We cannot condone the Bates tragedy, but these statistics merit consideration.  As of March 16, 2012, the Taliban have killed 2,332 Afghan civilians.  Another 3,649 Afghan civilians have suffered serious injuries inflicted by the Taliban.  Prior to this incident, NATO forces have inadvertently killed 410 civilians and caused 335 injuries to Afghan civilians. In 2011, suicide bombers accounted for 967 civilian fatalities and 1,568 injuries.

Yet, it is we Americans who Karzai publicly reprimands.

Our Veterans

Sergeant Bates is most certainly suffering an extreme case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  He is not alone. PTSD is one of the returning soldier’s biggest challenges. When we place our men and women in harm’s way, then withdraw them for a brief time before placing them back in combat, there is no healing time and the chance of PTSD increases with every tour.  One could argue that with each tour, the trooper becomes less effective, more burned out.  Combat burnout has always been an issue.  In these cases, experience is often a wearing trait.

Veterans Helping Veterans Now reports that 1 in every 4 homeless persons is a veteran.  Veterans comprise only 11 percent of the US population.

In January, 2012, The Christian News Report indicated that the divorce rate for returning veterans has surged to 42 percent more than the general public.

More than 20 percent of returning Vets suffer PTSD.

Approximately 750,000 troops have been called upon to serve multiple tours.

The Veterans PTSD Project conducted a study at West Point.  90% of the interviewed officers-to-be were aware of PTSD.  However, only 10% knew that the condition called for therapy.

PTSD is a thoroughly debilitating condition. One of the more terrifying side effects of war is that 18 veterans are committing suicide…every day.  Even veterans who do not crumble under the weight of PTSD suffer depression and severe anxiety.

There are approximately 2 million soldiers who have served in the Afghan-Iraq wars.  Between 2005 and 2007, military suicides ballooned by 26 percent.  Despite the fact that veterans comprise about 11 percent of the population, 20 percent of US suicides involve veterans.

“Those who can win a war well can rarely make a good peace and those who could make a good peace would never win the war.”  Winston Churchill.

Recently, a friend asked me what I thought about the parallels between Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.  Several of my thoughts are listed above.  But, here’s another one.  Just as we did in Vietnam, we went to Iraq under pretenses created by the military-industrial complex (WMD) . We went to war in Vietnam after a farcical Bay of Tonkin fabrication.

Here’s another similarity. The peasants of Vietnam, the majority of the population, could care less about the Americans, the ARVN’s or the North Vietnamese Regulars (NVR).  Frankly, the Afghan population has had enough of this conflict. They want their lives back.  Before we leave, we should burn the poppy fields and come home pronto. We should no longer be in Afghanistan.

When withdrawal seems so obvious, why do we stay?  Is it because we have invested so much treasure?  Is it to justify the lost lives? It is time to accept the tragic loss of lives and loss of limbs.  It is time to suffer the lost treasure and come home to heal.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between Vietnam and the current conflicts is the absence of a draft.  With a draft, these wars would have ended years ago.

The Republican Presidential Debates and Washington in general are extremely frustrating.  These candidates seem to have an altruistic view of war.  When the candidates discuss attacking Iran, it is terrifying.  This should not be politics.  War is the last resort.  If you ask my children to go to war, you should first tell your children to go the war.  Perhaps, politicians would not be so aggressive if their sons and daughters were forced to serve.  I am ashamed to say that I know only 3 families with veterans of these conflicts. One is a waitress whose two sons and husband have been in the combat area at the same time for more than one tour.  Another young man is a pilot. I know a florist in Connecticut whose son was first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. My friend and her husband are very brave.  She cries every single day.  He is on his third tour.

We are not physically or mentally ready for another war.  If Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum are so sure another war is necessary, I challenge them to restore the draft.  If one lacks the courage to send his or her children to war, we should not be at war.  Is war another event orchestrated by We the Few and imposed upon We the People? The force that invades Iran should be a cross section of our society.  It should not be the same troops facing tour after tour while We the Few debate the merits of a war fought by We the People.  I am not ashamed to day that if my children were drafted, I would help pack their bags.  I would leave the country right along with them.

The truth is that we have boxed ourselves into a corner regarding enlistment.  We have soldiers fighting because they do not have the wherewithal to support their families without a job.  For many of our troops, the military is not a career.  It is a job and not much of one at that.  During my service in Vietnam, I made $0.11 per hour tax-free. That was combat pay.

What we do know is that a Presidential candidate who advocates the draft will not be elected.  The same holds true for Congressmen.  Yet, the draft should be a measure of the wars we fight.  War is not someone else’s burden.  Wars are the burden of the entire US society.  If we are not willing to draft, then we should be unwilling to fight.

Under no situation should we occupy another land.  We have already made a mess of this one.  Who are we to impose our beliefs or perceptions upon others?  21st warfare should involve drones more resources in our intelligence community and strike forces that hit, run and prepare for the next round.

Why are Americans of one social rung defending the country while men and women of the same age are building financial security? If Republicans really want war, they should sell it to their constituents.  Explain that war is the only option and that the children of all constituents will be subject to the draft.  These draftees can be trained by and serve alongside our volunteer army. My guess is that we would have the protest movements of the 60’s.  Perhaps, Washington would put aside their inside trading long enough to do the People’s business.

“The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed during war.”  A Chinese proverb.

When our troops come home this time, let’s be ready for them.  Don’t wait for violence to explode on our streets.  Address PTSD immediately.  Insist that a psychological review be a condition of debriefing whether the trooper is remaining in service or being fully discharged.  Find or create jobs for our returning vets.  The US is ill prepared to face is the reality that 20 percent of our military force is undergoing PTSD. A higher percentage is unable to find work. The very real formula for violence is there.  The violence that will ensue will be the ultimate tragedy.  We owe these troopers everything.  We cannot do enough for our veterans. Right the wrongs.  Do not just talk about it.  Do not judge Staff Sergeant Bates.  He is a tragic reminder of the atrocities of war.

Sergeant Bates is the product of our own failed strategies designed to save political face. He is a sobering reminder of the reality of war. If we do not take care of our troops, there will be many more of these incidents and they will not all be in Afghanistan.  We have some pretty dangerous people out there.

The United States entered World War II the day after the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  We ended our involvement in 1945. Every World War II veteran, every Korean War veteran and every Vietnam veteran has their own experience.  Those experiences never entirely leave.

We have been at war for close to 11 years.  Let us not disgrace our veterans and the families of those that have sacrificed by mistreating our returning troops.  This is the time to call for peace at all costs.  This is the time for the Americans who have not participated in the conflicts and have gone about their lives to embrace the returning veterans in a positive way. The time is not tomorrow, not next week, not next month. The time to act is now, right now.  God bless the members of the USA military forces.

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2 Comments on "At What Price War?"

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  1. Karen says:

    AMEN! Very well stated.

    It’s time to heal. The healing begins with us.

    [Reply]

  2. Rob says:

    Sgt. Bales is a tragic story. Our military is overextended, and so are our troopers. As in Vietnam, the task isto find a way out.

    [Reply]

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