Editorial Column: The Invisible War

The New York Times

May 21, 2008 – Landing in Seattle after a long flight from Texas, I was about to join the exit scrum when the pilot informed us there were five soldiers on board, ending a three-day odyssey home from Iraq. Could we let them pass?

What followed was prolonged applause by all, and a startling reminder to some – oh, are we still at war?
Not only still at war, but deeper than ever. It was one thing for the Iraq war to pass an inglorious five-year landmark in March, longer than any other American conflict except the Vietnam War. But the cost now looks like it will exceed all wars except World War II — with a price tag that could near $3 trillion.

The Iraq war has already cost twice as much, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as World War I, and 10 times as much as the Persian Gulf war, according to a new book by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes. This is in addition, of course, to the more than 4,000 American lives lost, 30,000 wounded and the psychic blows that will ripple through every town that sent a young person off to fight.

Yet, for its prolonged clutch on our treasury and blood, no war as been so out-of-sight, so stage-managed to be painless and invisible. We’re supposed to shop, to spend our stimulus checks, to carry on as if nothing has happened — or is happening. Every now and then we get to rise at a stadium or pause on an airplane. Some sacrifice.

It would have been more fitting for us on that plane to stand aside while a flag-draped coffin was unloaded. At least then, we would get a moment to wonder what it’s like to put a 19-year-old son in a grave, to lose a sister, a spouse, to see war as something more than a parlor game of neo-cons.

In a democracy, wars should be felt by the decision makers — all of us. It starts at the top.

So, in 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt said, “This will require, of course, the abandonment not only of luxuries but of many other creature comforts.” President Bush made a sacrifice – he gave up golf as an act of solidarity with families at war. The man who has probably taken more vacations than any other American president, who goes on showy mountain bike rides while his Veterans Administration shamefully mistreats broken warriors, who cut taxes while burdening a generation with this overseas cancer, is at ease with his conscience.

“I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf,” he said in a bizarre interview with Politico last week. “And I think playing golf during a war sends the wrong signal.”

He then went on, in the same interview, to do his imitation of Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. No wrong signal there.

In every way, this president has tried to hide the war. The press chafes because photos of flag-draped coffins are forbidden. But that’s nothing compared to how this administration is trying to turn the public’s eyes away from the pain of the people who feel it most directly, the soldiers and their families.

Suicide rates among returning veterans are soaring. And the administration’s response? Cover up the data. An e-mail titled “Shh!” surfaced earlier this month from Dr. Ira Katz, a top official at the V.A. The note indicated that far more veterans were trying to kill themselves than the administration had let on. It speaks for itself.

“Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see,” Katz wrote, in a note not meant for the general public. “Is this something we should address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles upon it?”

Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat of Washington, who has made veterans affairs her specialty, was furious. “They lied about these numbers,” Murray told me. “It breaks my heart. Soldiers tell us that they were taught how to go to war, but not how to come home. You hear about divorces, binge-drinking, post-traumatic stress, suicide. And the reaction from the president is part of a pattern from the very beginning to show that this war is not costly or consequential.”

Murray is the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran. During her college years, while other students were protesting, she volunteered at a veterans hospital. The odds are, she said, at least one of those five soldiers we applauded on my return plane will suffer severe mental trauma from the war. A recent Rand Corporation study said as much, noting that that 300,000 veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan are plagued by major depression or stress disorder.

“Look what we do when there’s a natural disaster — we show the pictures of the victims and open our hearts,” said Murray. “President Bush should do the same thing with the war.”

But that would require bringing out in the open something that has been hidden since the start of this long war — the truth.

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