Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The human price of war

Both the Star Tribune and the New York Times Magazine had good pieces this weekend about the hurdles reservists face when they return home from Iraq.

From the Star Tribune:

More than 15,000 Minnesota soldiers -- National Guard, Reserve and active duty -- have been deployed to global hot spots since 9/11.

For most of them, as was true for their fathers and grandfathers coming home from earlier wars, the euphoric family reunions were the sweet, easy part of their homecomings.

What follows is tougher: First, a kind of emotional decompression from combat to civilian life. Then the challenge of getting on with work and making a living.

It can be a difficult and sometimes lonely undertaking.

Employers worry about hiring them, knowing the military could call them away again. Some return with injuries that make it impossible to return to their former jobs.

And many come to realize that even the best of re-entries to the work-a-day world require serious attitude -- and adrenaline -- adjustments.

The Strib's web site has been screwed up for months, and here's an example. Accompanying that intro text in the paper was four profiles of reservists who faced different struggles reintegrating into the workplace. But just try to find it online.

It's worth reading, because it describes the economic costs of deployment: the injured man who may never work again; the self-employed soldier who had to sell his trucking business and is now trying to rebuild it; the difficulties he encounters from banks, who are reluctant to loan him money because he might get deployed again and qualify for an interest-rate cap; the difficulties others encounter from employers, who are wary of hiring someone who could be deployed at any time. It really captures how disruptive deployments can be economically.

The New York Times story is largely a portrait of one man's struggle with post-traumatic stress, but it captures some larger issues, too: how boring and meaningless civilian life can seem after the intensity of combat, the difficulty in shedding the hypervigilance and constant stress that kept them alive in Iraq, how hard it can be coming to terms with what they saw and did overseas. As one quote from the story puts it:

"I didn't really know what to expect," Norris said. At first, he recalled, "it all seemed kind of mellow. Nothing happened on our drive up from Kuwait, and from what I'd seen on the news about Iraq, I figured everything was pretty much under control." That assessment changed a few days after his arrival, when Norris and the rest of his eight-man recovery team were led into the back room of a maintenance shed on the base by the team they had come to replace. One veteran had a laptop on which he had stored images of the missions his unit had gone out on. "You're going to see things out there no one should ever have to see," the departing team leader told the new arrivals. "You need to tow a vehicle — you'd better be prepared to reach through a man's intestines to put it in neutral."

This is what war does to the participants. That alone is not a reason to eschew war -- combat, terrible as it is, can be a necessary evil. But it is a reason not to start wars lightly, or carelessly, or without full and careful deliberation and planning. And that is why the invasion of Iraq makes me mad. Because it was poorly planned, and because it was not a last resort, and because it was pursued relentlessly, almost eagerly, by those who thought it would mark the beginning of the American Empire. The planners, in their fantastical ignorance, embraced war far too readily. And this is the result.

If you want peace, prepare for war. But do not pull the trigger until you are certain that the cost is worth it, and there is no acceptable alternative.

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