Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
World War II was a watershed event in American history. 16.5 million American troops served in theaters across the globe, from the bitter cold and snow at Bastogne to the heat-blasted coral island of Peleliu in the Pacific. 416,837 died, 683,846 were wounded. But for those who survived physically, the specter of war remained. What was then called “combat fatigue” is now widely known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD became the silent ghost that haunted veterans decades after the war ended. A study in 1992 estimated that as many as 56% of combat soldiers who came home carried with them the effects of too many bombs and bullets, and too many memories of good friends torn to pieces on the battlefield.
The American participation in the war, from Pearl Harbor in December 1941 to Tokyo Bay in September 1945, lasted 3 years and 9 months.
Our modern-day soldiers fought in Iraq from March 2003 until December 2011, 8 years and 9 months. They have been fighting in Afghanistan for over 10 years. With the Army seemingly running out of soldiers, some veterans have been ordered back for their fourth year-long deployment.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was one such soldier. By all accounts, he was a great guy, a devoted family man, and the quintessential “Sgt. Rock” to the soldiers he led. We may never know what prompted his alleged act. But one thing is certain. The good man, the loving father and husband, the superb leader he was will now be forgotten.
He will be remembered instead as a killer who took the lives of 16 Afghani civilians.
I ache for those who died and for their families. But I also ache for SSGT Bales and his family. He should never have been there.
Humans are not perfect, and soldiers are not invulnerable. There is only so much violence and stress someone can endure before their mind fails them.
After 9/11, we went to war in the Middle East. Since then, Iraq’s government has changed and while the road ahead still looks rocky and strewn with potholes, it would appear that their future is a good deal brighter. Afghanistan, though, is harder to quantify.
The Taliban were almost defeated, but seem to have mounted a bit of a comeback. Now that the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces has a firm date, the Jihadists can now await our departure before resuming their drive towards victory. Nobody seems to know whether the government of Hamid Karzai will be able to resist the inevitable attacks.
America has, to date, sacrificed some 1,800 dead and 10,000 wounded in Afghanistan in the hopes that the Afghani people could hold their own destiny firmly in hand. If the Karzai government loses that fight, then that cost will have been paid in vain.
While combat may end next year, for those who suffer from PTSD, the war will go on for the rest of their lives. Yes, we’ve expended billions of dollars in that conflict. But the value of our soldiers goes beyond mere currency. We sent them, and they have been used up. Because of that cost, it’s time for us, We The People, to begin to ask the hard questions.
American troops have served, and continue to serve across the globe. Whenever conflict erupts in a strategically important place, the call is sounded for America to send her soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to quell the violence. For the last few weeks, you could hear the cry over the tragedy in Syria, as government forces indiscriminately slaughtered civilians. But we have to ask if sending our troops into such a cauldron would fundamentally change anything. Is it the moral choice to send our young men and women into impossible situations minus an exit strategy to operate under orders that are fuzzy, at best? And why us? Is America the only country on the planet with this moral imperative to stop conflict?
American troops, the finest and bravest ever assembled in the history of the world, are not the “fix-it” tool for every international tragedy. They are courageous and dedicated humans who have their limits, and those limits have been reached. They have given all they can. Bring them home; keep them home. Let them heal.
As John Kennedy said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Our power is not infinite. We have limits.”
Perhaps it is time for the world to learn how to take care of itself.