When Leaders Declare War

My usual topics as a blogger are climate and energy policy. Not today. I'm writing today as a Vietnam veteran who does not see an end to war in my lifetime.

The news is filled right now with reports of ISIS extremists locking a man in a cage and burning him alive, all captured on high quality video and posted on the Internet. It was an escalation of the sickening imagery ISIS has spread of multiple videotaped beheadings.

Some have speculated that ISIS is using these escalating atrocities to provoke the United States into a ground war, a redo of our past asymmetric wars in which the most powerful military force in history became locked in interminable and unwinnable death grips with indigenous enemies. Faced with provocations that offend every sense of morality and humanity, I cannot say what decision I would make if I were the one who had to make it.

But I can say this: If the United States ever decides to fight another war, our leaders must muster enough courage to require that the American people be involved. It would require only a fraction of the courage we expect from the men and women we send to do the fighting. To be specific, we should never again fight a significant war without a national draft and war tax.

The American people would welcome neither, and that's the point. A draft and war tax would force our leaders to make a clear and virtually indisputable case for why war was necessary, what the objectives were, and what our exit strategy would be.

When we go to war, the entire nation should share the sacrifice. Civilian support for our troops is a sham when it's only bumper sticker slogans and "thank yous" to people we encounter in uniform. Real support is the kind we saw during World War II when citizens grew victory gardens, accepted gasoline rationing and bought war bonds, and when women left home to labor in the "arsenal of democracy", replacing factory workers who were fighting overseas.

In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we have seen the consequences of fighting on the cheap. They have been disgraceful.

Because there was no draft, the all-volunteer military included more women, more parents of young children and more reserve and National Guard troops than previous conflicts. Because of a shortage of volunteers, the Pentagon sent men and women back into combat two, three, four or more times. Between 2004 and 2011, the Pentagon enforced a so-called "stop loss" program to compensate for a shortage of volunteers. By one count, more than 50,000 men and women were forced to stay in the military past their contracted discharge dates.

The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are not only America's longest wars; they are the first to be fought without a war tax. Despite estimates by officials in the George W. Bush administration that the war would cost "something under $50 billion" and the cost would be shared by allies and paid with revenues from Iraq's oil, the cost actually will be as much as $6 trillion, including long-term medical care and disability compensation for veterans, along with other social and economic expenses the American people will bear for years to come.

Whether because of tight budgets or poor planning, American soldiers suffered unnecessary deaths and injuries because they were sent into battle without adequate equipment. Troops rummaged through scrap heaps to find materials to fortify their Humvees with "hillbilly armor" against roadside bombs. Few of us who served in the military can forget the unusual if not unprecedented incident in which soldiers bound for Iraq confronted the Secretary of Defense two years after that war began, asking why they were about to go into combat with antiquated and inadequately protected equipment.

When soldiers with physical and psychological wounds came home, they received scandalously inadequate care, ranging from the rat-infested Walter Reed Army Hospital to the more recent cover-up of inhumane and even fatally long waits to see VA doctors.

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 44% of the troops returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have reported difficulties adjusting, often experiencing multiple overlapping maladies including post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and substance abuse. In 2011, the jobless rate among veterans of the post 9/11 era, aged 18-24, was more than 30%, nearly twice as high as that for nonveterans in the same age group.

Past experience has shown that these problems continue for years, often do not peak until decades later and, in fact, may last for the rest of a veteran's life. In my experience, many veterans who served in combat, even those with no visible wounds, have never fully recovered from the psychological toll or the cost to their families, careers and personal lives. These injuries occur in every war, but they would be fewer and less severe with adequate personnel and resources.

More than 460,000 American men and women have been killed or wounded in combat during the Korean, Vietnam and various Middle East wars, not counting nearly 7,000 suicides by military personnel between 1980 and 2010. Nevertheless, these have not been declared wars; our leaders called them "policy actions", "conflicts" or "military actions".

Contrast that with one of Winston Churchill's speeches to his House of Commons when the United Kingdom was fighting Nazi Germany alone. He asked the House to confirm its confidence in the war effort. "I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," he said. "We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering." The House unanimously approved a motion of support for the war effort.

I do not believe in war, but neither do I believe we are done with it. What I know for certain is that no future conflict should be started by leaders who do not have the courage to be honest about why it is necessary and to engage the entire nation in the effort.