Bob Herbert / Syndicated columnist
We owe our stressed-out troops in Afghanistan an exit from that hellhole
What we are doing to these troops who have been serving tour after tour in Afghanistan and Iraq is unconscionable, writes columnist Bob Herbert. In addition to the terrible physical toll, more and more soldiers are returning home with serious mental-health problems.
At least 14 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan over the past few days.
We learned on Saturday that our so-called partner in this forlorn war, Hamid Karzai, fired a top prosecutor who had insisted on, gasp, fighting the corruption that runs like a crippling disease through his country.
Time magazine tells us that stressed-out, depressed and despondent soldiers are seeking help for their mental difficulties at a rate that is overwhelming the capacity of available professionals. What we are doing to these troops who have been serving tour after tour in Afghanistan and Iraq is unconscionable.
Time described the mental-health issue as "the U.S. Army's third front," with the reporter, Mark Thompson, writing: "While its combat troops fight two wars, its mental-health professionals are waging a battle to save soldiers' sanity when they come back, one that will cost billions long after combat ends in Baghdad and Kabul."
In addition to the terrible physical toll, the ultimate economic costs of these two wars, as the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and his colleague Linda Bilmes have pointed out, will run to more than $3 trillion.
I get a headache when I hear supporters of this endless warfare complaining about the federal budget deficits. They're like arsonists complaining about the smell of smoke in the neighborhood.
There is no silver lining to this nearly decade-old war in Afghanistan. Poll after poll has shown that it no longer has the support of most Americans. And yet we fight on, feeding troops into the meat-grinder year after tragic year — to what end?
"Clearly, the final chapters of this particular endeavor are very much yet to be written," said Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, during a BBC interview over the weekend. He sounded as if those chapters would not be written any time soon.
In a reference to President Barack Obama's assertion that U.S. troops would begin to withdraw from Afghanistan next July, Petraeus told the interviewer: "That's a date when a process begins, nothing more, nothing less. It's not the date when the American forces begin an exodus and look for the exit and the light to turn off on the way out of the room."
A lot of Americans who had listened to the president thought it was, in fact, a date when the American forces would begin an exodus. The general seems to have heard something quite different.
In truth, it's not at all clear how Obama really feels about the awesome responsibilities involved in waging war, and that's a problem. The Times' Peter Baker wrote a compelling and in many ways troubling article recently about the steep learning curve that Obama, with no previous military background, has had to negotiate as a wartime commander in chief.
Quoting an unnamed adviser to the president, Baker wrote that Obama sees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as "problems that need managing" while he pursues his mission of transforming the nation.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking on the record, said, "He's got a very full plate of very big issues, and I think he does not want to create the impression that he's so preoccupied with these two wars that he's not addressing the domestic issues that are uppermost in people's minds."
Wars are not problems that need managing, which suggests that they will always be with us. They are catastrophes that need to be brought to an end as quickly as possible. Wars consume lives by the thousands (in Iraq, by the scores of thousands) and sometimes, as in World War II, by the millions.
The goal when fighting any war should be peace, not a permanent simmer of nonstop maiming and killing. Wars are meant to be won — if they have to be fought at all — not endlessly looked after.
One of the reasons we're in this state of nonstop warfare is the fact that so few Americans have had any personal stake in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no draft and no direct financial hardship resulting from the wars. So we keep shipping other people's children off to combat as if they were some sort of commodity, like coal or wheat, with no real regard for the terrible price so many have to pay, physically and psychologically.
Not only is this tragic, it is profoundly disrespectful. These are real men and women, courageous and mostly uncomplaining human beings, that we are sending into the war zones, and we owe them our most careful attention.
Above all, we owe them an end to two wars that have gone on much too long.
Bob Herbert is a regular columnist for The New York Times.
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