I don’t want to let today go by without saying something in recognition of Memorial Day. Our holiday honoring America’s war dead seemed for a time to be fading into more of a celebration of “the first day of summer” with less remembrance of sacrifices, but this year we seem to be a bit somber for a variety of reasons.
More than 1,000 Americans have died in the war in Afghanistan now, and for the first time since 2003 we have more soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen there in total than in Iraq, where we continue. The campaign in Afghanistan is now America’s longest war–ever. It started in the first year of the first George W. Bush administration and is now “Obama’s war” in his second year. My son is in middle school–this war started when he was four years old. I wonder if he will have to decide whether or not to go himself in just a few more years.
I am left with the feeling that while we are doing a better job recognizing and appreciating our men and women in the service, and honoring those who have given their lives, than at some times in the past, we are simply asking, and expecting, too much from them. The effort in Afghanistan since late 2001 has really been more about nation building–the mission of taking out the Taliban was accomplished. Likewise, in Iraq, the mission of taking Saddam Hussein out of power–what had not been done in 1991 that some were waiting out the Clinton years to pick back up on–was accomplished. Since then, the real task has been building a substitute system. These nation building tasks fall to the military because no one else knows what to do or is willing or has the resources. In Iraq, the general in charge of the immediate post-Saddam effort was replaced by a civilian viceroy who eventually did a quick handoff to a not yet formed Iraqi government and left the military to pick up the pieces and carry on.
I pray for the success of the great projects of creating a new Afghanistan and a new Iraq, both for the men and women of these countries and for the men and women of the armed services (American and those from other countries) who have given so much to the effort–and especially for my old friend, a reservist, who is just now leaving his wife and young son to deploy to Iraq for a year.
It is in Africa that America has had very little military experience and has lost very few soldiers. When I was in Kenya a survey came out noting that the United States was more popular in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world–including within the United States itself. I think we have a good bit to lose by dumping our diplomacy and development efforts onto the shoulders of AFRICOM now–the military has already been tasked with too much by our civilian leadership in the past several years and is still stretched too thin. If we need to do more in the areas of development and diplomacy, then we need to step up to the plate and do it–not make it one more assignment for the military. It is an extraordinary thing to see the Secretary of Defense, and especially the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually lobbying Congress for funding for the State Department, including USAID. This is where the responsibility should rest.