Sometimes it is the aggregate of the news, more than a particular story, that ushers in a shock, a realization that things are perhaps worse than they seem.
The headlines in the fourth week of March reminded us we are a nation still at war. It’s easy to forget, or ignore. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans are active in our armed forces. That disconnects most of us from the burdens and costs of conflict.
But there were the grim reminders of past and present strife, and harbingers of more to come:
President Obama announced a slowdown of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, at the request of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Some 4,300 military due to return home will now remain deployed through the end of the year.
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The simple truth is the job is not done in Afghanistan. We owe that nation and the service members who lost their lives there to finish the work, yet it’s far from clear we can possibly succeed. The new Afghan president addressed Congress and admitted what has long been known, that the Afghan forces cannot keep the Taliban and other Islamist militants at bay without our support. So nearly 10,000 American troops stationed there must remain at least through the end of the year. Will that commitment ever end?
Fourteen years have passed since we first entered Afghanistan. In December, our military ceremonially marked the end of the combat missions in Afghanistan. It might have seemed we were bidding farewell to our nation’s longest war. We were not.
Nor are we finished with the war in Iraq. There’s the hangover to deal with. This week the Army fessed up that not only were soldiers exposed to chemical weapons, but protocols were not followed when those same soldiers began suffering from the effects. The undersecretary for the Army apologized and vowed better screening and proper medical treatment will be given.
By the way, the chemical weapons in question were not the fictional WMD that were conjured to deceive the public and Congress into supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. They were dangerous sarin and mustard agents left over from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, repurposed in improvised explosives.
The military issued its mea culpa only after the New York Times produced a series of reports outlining the problems veterans were having and the inadequate medical response.
The Army will also revisit cases to determine if exposed soldiers were denied medals of valor. They deserve honors just for the added suffering of serving a military that failed to serve their needs when wounded.
Nor have we gotten beyond the domestic political rancor surrounding the war. Bitter invective spilled again after the Army brought charges on March 25 against Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. He will face a court martial for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy after being held by insurgents for more than five years.
His case became political theater when he was traded for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. To many critics of the deal, a soldier suspected of desertion was not worthy of the trade. Bergdahl became a proxy for their real political enemy, Obama. It’s not conclusively known if any U.S. troops died while searching for him. But that didn’t stop Obama’s conservative foes from accusing him of dereliction as commander-in-chief
Shortly after the news of Bergdahl’s charges, it was reported that Saudi Arabia and other regional allies had launched airstrikes on the Yemen’s capital. The country’s president had been deposed by the Houthi, Iranian-back militants. U.S. troops are not involved, but we apparently offered “intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, and advisory and logistical support for strikes,” according to Secretary of State John Kerry. And so the Middle East conflict widens.
Our warplanes are part of the airstrikes against the Islamic State, bolstering the Iraqi government’s effort to take back the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State. Some Shiite militia groups fighting alongside Iraqi forces reportedly withdrew from the front lines in response to the U.S. airstrikes.
America can’t wash its hands of these wars, even after we’ve announced that they’re over. They will be with us for decades, if not generations. Our military has been hesitant to admit full truth about the dangers soldiers have faced, and politicians in both parties, each in their own way, appear to be in denial about the geopolitical whirlwind we have created in the Middle East.
All of it is ripe for politicization, for confusing a nation that is distanced from the workings of its own military in ways not seen by past generations.
To reach Mary Sanchez call 816-234-4752 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter@msanchezcolumn.