We’re not good at discussing this, at confronting head-on what the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions can be.
by Frank Bruni
New York Times
IN the feverish debate about a strike against Syria, there was a phrase that rankled, a shorthand that shortchanged the potential consequences and costs of military engagement.
“Boots on the ground.” It’s what the Obama administration told us that we needn’t worry about. It’s what lawmakers and pundits said that voters could never abide.
No “boots on the ground.” Definitely not “boots on the ground.” It was as if we were talking about footwear: rest assured, folks, wingtips and Birkenstocks are out of the question. But we were talking about lives, about American servicemen and servicewomen, the kind who were dispatched for dubious reasons to Iraq and less dubious ones to Afghanistan, some of whom didn’t come back, some of whom will never be the same.
We’re not good at discussing this, at confronting head-on what the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions can be. We turn to abstractions, not just “boots on the ground” but the shopworn observation, divorced from any detail, that Americans are “tired of war,” as if it’s a wearying chore, something that fatigues a country rather than something that rips families and communities apart, sucking their loved ones in and spitting them back out in coffins, on respirators, with missing pieces, with scrambled minds.
As last week ended, the possibility of bombing Syria seemed to recede. But before that happened, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were promising that any military action we might take would be limited to the air and would be at once a definitive deterrent and “unbelievably small,” in Kerry’s words. That paradoxical notion spoke volumes about the administration’s confused and confusing approach.
And that assurance underscored a different, unspoken reality: that to strike a blow is to light a fuse. You just don’t know. You can’t predict the moment or the shape of the explosion, and you can’t guess the size of the temptation to follow it up with just one more maneuver, one additional push. My fellow Americans, we’ve gone this far. We must seal the deal by going a little farther still.
And that’s why we should have been weighing, and should still weigh, some numbers in addition to those cited by the president in his address to the nation last Tuesday night. He mentioned the galling statistic that more than 100,000 people had been killed in the last two years of civil war in Syria. More than 1,000 of them, he said, had perished in the gas attack that prompted our current debate about whether to hit certain Syrian targets.
Here are some other relevant figures. Our country sent more than two million men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 6,500 of them are dead. Tens of thousands were physically injured, including some 1,500 amputees. Iraq and Afghanistan were minefields, literally and metaphorically, rife with improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s. They were easy places to lose a limb.
Of the two-million-plus Americans who spent time there, “studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder,” writes David Finkel in his beautiful and heartbreaking new book, “Thank You for Your Service,” which wasexcerpted in The New Yorker recently and will be published next month. “Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.”
Pause here for a few seconds. Take that in. Half a million Americans carry around a darkness they didn’t used to, because when our country went to war, they, unlike most of us, actually had to go.
“How to grasp the true size of such a number, and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place?” Finkel asks in his book. That’s an essential question, not just in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan but in relation to our current crossroads and all that we need to take into consideration when deliberating war.
THERE’S the financial strain of military engagement. There’s the wrath of nations that disapprove of it and the possible repercussion from terrorists. With Syria, each of these has been discussed.
But there’s also a worst-case scenario of a point, down the line, when things get messier than we ever meant them to and when there’s a call for something more than aerial bombardment, for the presence — and the sacrifice — of American servicemen and servicewomen. And “boots on the ground” isn’t adequate acknowledgment of this.
“Thank You for Your Service” is. Together with its masterful prequel, “The Good Soldiers,”it measures the wages of the war in Iraq — the wages of war, period — as well as anything I’ve read.
For “The Good Soldiers,” Finkel embedded himself so deep in a battalion that he could evoke the blood, sweat and dread of the men around him. For “Thank You for Your Service,” he followed some of those men home, and got inside their therapy sessions, their homes, their heads. He chronicled all the pills they were taking to try to medicate themselves back into some semblance of normalcy. He chronicled the silences they fell into because they weren’t sure what to say.
He atones for our scant attention by paying meticulous heed. And he reminds us that it’s not just the warriors who suffer; it’s the family members who muddle on without them or who struggle to put them back together.
One of the people he follows closely in the book is a widow, Amanda Doster, whose friends, he writes, “began to lose patience with her inability to stop being so relentlessly heartbroken.” When she packs up the house that she and her dead husband shared, the very last thing she grabs, from a counter, is the wooden box with his ashes, and when she puts it in the car, she “buckles him in,” as if it’s not too late to try to protect him.
I mention Finkel and his books not just because they’re so gorgeously written, but because they fill in crucial gaps for the many Americans who have opinions about Syria but no firsthand experience of war.
The way that we can best thank our good soldiers for their service is to keep in mind, whenever contemplating the next military engagement, the ravages of the last one. To remember that there are spouses passionately loved, parents sorely needed, sons and daughters fiercely cherished in all of those pairs of boots.