Iraq: The Next Battle for the Veterans

As Obama announced that 30,000 troops will be coming home by the end of the month, Stephen Kinzer on why their fate is even worse than Vietnam vets.

Maya Alleruzzo / AP Photo

When President Obama gave a speech Monday to mark the end of U.S. combat missions in Iraq by the end of this month, his intent was clear: This was a reminder to voters that he was ending the war in Iraq “as promised and on schedule.”

But the president’s remarks were also a rare reminder about the soldiers fighting our wars.

Elections are approaching in the U.S., and candidates are out on the hometown hustings. What are they hearing from voters? Mainly questions about the economy, according to reports from several states. Some voters ask about social issues like abortion, gun control, and gay marriage. A few want to vent about immigration or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The U.S. is in fact not at war. Americans are not fighting an enemy. Just a tiny fraction of our population is: those in uniform. This is the terrifying innovation of modern American warfare.

This might seem normal except for one glaring fact: American soldiers are at war on the other side of the world, dying almost every day under relentless attack from a powerful enemy. While President Obama this week announced that 30,000 troops will be coming home from Iraq by the end of the month, the conflict in Afghanistan recently became both the longest and most expensive war in American history. Last month, 63 Americans were killed there, making it the deadliest month yet. Opinion polls suggest that many voters are unhappy with Obama's continuing escalation. Yet despite all this, debate over the Afghan War, or Iraq, is almost absent from the 2010 political campaign.

Part of the reason is that American voters usually care more about their own pocketbooks than foreign policy. On security and defense matters, they defer to their president—the way they deferred to President Bush when he decided in 2003 to invade Iraq. In the U.S., like other countries, there are many votes to be won by forcefully vowing to blast every enemy off the face of the earth, and far fewer by suggesting that such a goal is unrealistic and urging compromise instead.

There is another reason, however, why so few Americans have focused on the Afghan conflict. The United States is in fact not at war. Americans are not fighting an enemy. Just a tiny fraction of our population is: those in uniform. This is the terrifying innovation of modern American warfare. Because there is no longer a military draft, the effects of war are confined to the warrior class. Most Americans live as if we weren’t at war.

How different this is from the way war used to be fought. As recently as World War II, Americans at home reshaped their lives around the war effort, growing their own vegetables, collecting rubber and metal, and even bringing bacon fat to collection depots for use as a lubricant in arms factories. This meant that when a war went wrong, as the one in Vietnam did, the entire nation felt the pain and demanded withdrawal. Now, with no conscription, few voters feel any pain from what is happening in Afghanistan or Iraq.

In the Vietnam era, almost every American who opposed the war also wanted to abolish the military draft. Among the few exceptions was Senator Edward Kennedy. He used to visit college campuses and, when challenged, ask how many people in the hall favored a volunteer army. Almost every hand would go up. Then he would ask how many would volunteer for such an army: hardly any. That's why peace-lovers should favor conscription, Kennedy would say; it spreads the pain of war throughout society, and thereby makes a dubious war more difficult to wage.

There is, of course, some opposition to the Obama plan for escalation in Afghanistan. Last month, 114 members of the House of Representatives voted against an appropriation to pay for it. The dissidents were scattered across the political spectrum, from lefty Jim McGovern (D-MA), who called news from the war front “really ugly,” to libertarian Ron Paul (R-TX), who scorned a war he called “counterproductive, inappropriate, immoral.” Yet for most voters, the war is still diffuse and abstract.

It is an odd change in role for American soldiers. During the Vietnam War, they were reviled as baby-killing criminals. Now they are simply ignored, members of an alien class sealed off from the rest of society. Their sacrifice is honored in rote tributes but isn’t truly understood; unreal because the war itself is so remote from daily life.

Questioning the war in Afghanistan is difficult because doing so implies questioning the global role of the U.S. in the 21st century. It’s easier to look away. American civilians do not see this war, feel it, or suffer from its effects. Why should they care what their army is doing half a world away, especially if their leaders say it is for the protection of life and freedom? This war has been made to seem like none of the voters' business. Many evidently like it that way.

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Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent. His new book is Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future.