On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the U.S. commemorates Veterans Day. A day once used to celebrate the end of World War I was institutionalized by President Dwight Eisenhower to be the day Americans honored all veterans.
“[L]et us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain,” reads Eisenhower’s proclamation.
Today, around 190,000 combat troops are deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Finding the exact number of deployed servicemembers, however, is almost impossible for the typical civilian, since some deployments are unannounced. Of the 1.9 million Americans who have served or are serving in the two wars, Veterans For Common Sense, using a Research and Development Corporation study, estimate that 350,000 will come home with post traumatic stress disorder, and that another 370,000 will suffer a traumatic brain injury.
The toll this war continues to take on our nation’s service members is intensely significant. On this Veterans Day, finding ourselves steeped in two wars, with initial reports emerging that President Obama will be sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan during the next year, the American people should take time to pause and ask whether we really have reconsecrated ourselves to creating an “enduring peace.” But, more importantly for those currently serving, we should ask ourselves how best to find peace in the midst of two wars.
Immediate withdrawal will probably not bring an enduring peace. Today, we would leave Iraq susceptible to sectarian violence and Iranian intervention. We would leave Afghanistan even more so to the whims of the Taliban. Although Afghanistan could very well be “pacified” within a short time by Taliban forces, the question then becomes: Peace at what cost?
If some form of occupation is the solution for the near future, are we doing our service members justice? Is the task too daunting? Because Veterans Day is also about remembering history, perhaps the occupations of Japan and Germany can provide some guidance in our current wars.
Soon after the fall of Japan in World War II, over 385,000 U.S. soldiers occupied the island country, or a little over one soldier per square kilometer. Once Germany fell, the country was split into four zones. Around 1.6 million American troops initially occupied Germany, or about 16 soldiers per square kilometer of U.S. controlled territory. The initial drop-off in U.S. troop levels to over 277,000 one year later left almost three soldiers per square kilometer.
According to the Oct. 13 Washington Post article “Support Troops Swelling U.S. Force in Afghanistan,” around 124,000 troops are serving in Iraq and 65,000 are in Afghanistan. That leaves a little over a quarter of a soldier per square kilometer in Iraq, and about one-tenth of a soldier per square kilometer in Afghanistan.
Today’s technology certainly allows U.S. soldiers to travel faster, cover more area and attack more efficiently. But can these technological innovations really make up for the severe decrease in available troops? And the numbers shortage doesn’t even account for the low levels of critical infrastructure development in Iraq and Afghanistan, even compared to those levels present in 1940s Germany and Japan. Today, it’s as if the most rudimentary lessons of the past have been lost in the shuffle to war.
This Veterans Day will be overshadowed by the health care debate and the shooting at Fort Hood. And although all of these issues require introspection, we shouldn’t forget that the wars we are still fighting in the Middle East require at least as much attention.
Why are we in Afghanistan? Is the goal of the operation to rebuild the country or establish enough of a military presence there to prevent future terrorist attacks? Or has the goal been lost, and are we just there as a remnant of our failed hunt for Osama bin Laden?
Why are we in Iraq? Are we leaving soon? When will we know that the Iraqi government is strong enough to no longer require our presence to maintain order?
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There are serious questions left to answer in both conflicts that the current and past administrations have failed to address. But for the sake of those soldiers fighting today, those who have served in the past, and those who will be going overseas in the future, we must find the answers.
We must reconsecrate ourselves, not only to promoting enduring peace, but to honoring and remembering the efforts of our veterans. This Veterans Day should be dedicated to memory so that the lessons of the past are not forgotten to the detriment of the future.
Elad Gross is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.