With less than a week to go until Election Day—and given the collective nausea surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign—it might be better to wait to stave off debate about how we ignore our perpetual wars. If anything, this article is intended more for the archives than it is for the proverbial “undecided voter” whose mind might miraculously change because of a vapid opinion piece in a college newspaper.
Nonetheless, the fact that we continuously compartmentalize and ignore our military conflicts abroad is shameful. The arena of our second-longest war, Afghanistan, was only mentioned once in this year’s presidential debates.
The Vietnam War, our longest war, was seared into the minds of baby boomers, 9.7 percent of whom were involved in the conflict. Two thirds of those who served in Vietnam enlisted voluntarily, dispelling the relatively popular myth that most Vietnam veterans were coerced into combat by the draft.
Without the draft and a comparable feeling of civic duty, millennials and Gen Xers have served in the Gulf War and the War on Terror in far fewer numbers. Less than one half of one percent of Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2.5 million who have served in the War on Terror have seen more combat than previous veterans because the military now outsources non-combat-related services to contractors.
Depending on the year, close to 30 percent of defense spending has gone to independent contractors who do anything and everything from serving food to gathering intelligence, and even to fighting in combat. There has been a litany of articles in media publications and academic journals about the outsize influence of Private Military Contractors (PMCs) on the United States Department of Defense, most notably with Halliburton and its connections to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Less removed from the machine of the military industrial complex is the widespread problem of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among veterans, with the greatest concerns arising from an alarmingly high suicide rate. Over 20 veterans commit suicide each day. Veterans face a 21 percent higher risk of suicide than the rest of the American population. Though there have been mini documentary segments about this on just about every major nightly news program and on myriad alternative news outlets, the American public by and large ignores the suffering of veterans, at best compartmentalizing it, and, at worst, outright not caring about it.
How this has happened is a complicated question. Academics like Byron Nichols, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Union College, have suggested that one turning point in the American public’s attitude toward wars and engagement with service members came when military parades ceased after the Vietnam War. Longer term trends include a lack of news coverage from arenas of war by foreign correspondents. With the exception of a few organizations, Vice, for example, most major news organizations have cut back on foreign correspondents.
Yet, at some point, we have to stop blaming institutions and accept that we are the institutions that perpetuate what we don’t like in the world. Blackwater didn’t get its money out of nowhere; we elected the members of Congress and president that made those appropriations. The inadequacy of coverage for vets with PTSD didn’t happen on its own; we made the conscious choice to care more about other issues when electing our representatives who sat on the Veterans Affairs Committee. We’re the ones who condemn the moral atrocities of war by not even showing up at the ballot box when it counted. We are the generation that would rather spout off on social media than write a letter or make a phone call to our elected officials telling them why we’ll vote them out if they don’t stand up against a lack of funding for the VA. We are a generation that spends billions of dollars on contractors who swear allegiance not to the flag, but to the almighty dollar.
Even closer to home, we can support our Posse Veterans, of whom now there are around 30 on campus. While they don’t expect us to frantically go around thanking them for their service everywhere they go, we can do simple things like listening to their different experiences and refrain from morally judging their past. How we treat veterans on campus is a direct extension of how we treat veterans in our society writ large, and on a campus this small, we can make much more of a difference than on most other fronts.
Given that we are four days away from a potential Trump presidency—which is closer than ever to happening, based on the latest forecast from FiveThirtyEight—many of the problems we face now that already seem awful could quickly become absurdly abhorrent. Given this country’s compartmentalization of our global military presence, the conditions for the rise of a fascist tyrant are all the ripe.
One public figure who has made a consistent effort to engage with the grave realities of our military is NBC’s Willie Geist, who frequently brings up casualties and PTSD on “Morning Joe” and tweets out the daily number of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times is perhaps the best terrorism reporter in the world, finding her way into the chatrooms of the Islamic State and following major players that most people outside of the intelligence community otherwise wouldn’t know about.
So after Election Day, and hopefully after Donald Trump picks up his toys and goes home, let’s start talking about the most impactful and largest scale thing this country does: waging war. If we keep compartmentalizing and ignoring it, we cannot claim the moral high ground once we start paying attention.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017.