Paraphrasing Tolstoy: all happy empires are alike; every unhappy empire is unhappy in its own way. Without entering the rhetorical jungle of whether the United States has been exhibiting imperial tendencies in the early 21st century, it does share some unhappy symptoms with previous empires.
It is always a cause for wonderment that those most eager to go to war spend so little time thinking about its long term consequences, especially in human lives. This commentator has carried on a running word-fight with the media over the definition of “casualty”, usually used to indicate those killed in combat but intended to be used to include those wounded in combat as well. Total U.S. casualties in Iraq, for example, are approaching 40,000.
But now the long term payback for that war, and Afghanistan, is coming due. In recent days Defense Department studies reveal the number of suicides, drug abuse cases, and psychological disorders among the troops. Much of this is the result of extended deployments and repeated re-deployments, as well as the destructive mental impact of close-order counterinsurgency warfare. Dead bodies and wounded everywhere, everyday. This human toll is exacerbated by the lowering of recruitment standards to include those previously categorized as “morally unqualified”, people whose backgrounds would not otherwise permit them to serve. A separate consideration is the impact on career military personnel of being required to serve with those with criminal records.
Why cannot political leaders level with the American people on the costs of warfare? It is obvious if they did so, the appetite for voluntary invasions especially would be greatly diminished. Unfortunately our society’s collective memory will have erased the human costs of Iraq and Afghanistan by the time some future president starts beating the drums and unleashing the dogs of war. Reawakening memory requires statesmanship and a knowledge of history. And we have very few leaders who qualify.
Perhaps we should create a public office and call it the Prophet Jeremiah. Everytime the war drums were heard, the Prophet Jeremiah would remind us of the human costs we were assuming and the unhappiness of empires throughout history.