Brown University puts the cost of the Afghanistan debacle north of $2.3 trillion and the lives of 2,461 service members. The Congressional Research Service tells us iraq cost $1 trillion and 4,410 American lives; Vietnam cost $844 billion and 58,220 American lives. These figures do not take into account veteran suicides—which now eclipse non-veteran suicides nearly by a 2-to-1 ratio. Nor do they include the incalculable injuries — loss of limbs, vision, hearing — nor the myriad syndromes and afflictions, some still not properly diagnosed or understood, that follow exposure to war’s toxic environments.
So, we mourn our losses. And we are forced to accept the countless other casualties wrought by our incursions. We try not to see the faces of hapless bystanders, the families — people as beloved as yours or mine, with lives just as precious and meaningful — obliterated in our conflict.
To wit, recall the horrors that marked our shameful, final bow at Kabul. Suicide bombers, sending a good-riddance message, claimed nearly 200 lives, among them 13 U.S. soldiers. Not to be unavenged, we reciprocated with a drone strike that killed ten civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.
If we think we can measure the cost of war in dollars and lives, we are foolish indeed. Such numbers do not begin to limn what our failed forays have extracted from humanity — or the harm done to our planet. Consider that the U.S. military, the world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum, is the world’s largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases. It’s not surprising, since our military spending exceeds that of the next eleven biggest-spending nations combined.
Do you feel safer? Neither do I. So, what kind of people are we? Let’s admit we have become a nation of war losers. And it’s time to get out of the war business. But how?
We can start by revisiting some history. In 1926, Congress established Nov. 11 as Armistice Day to “commemorate with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” A week before the first observance that same year, President Coolidge issued a proclamation inviting the people of the United States “to observe the day in schools and churches or other places, with appropriate ceremonies expressive of our gratitude for peace and our desire for the continuance of friendly relations with all other peoples.”
Armistice Day became a legal holiday in 1938. But less than a decade after World War II and in the fresh wake of the still-unresolved conflict between North and South Korea, Congress rebranded Armistice Day as Veterans Day. It was as if we acquiesced to the notion that our nation is incapable of rejecting war. Instead, we would honor the warrior. We took a step away from what we knew to be the ideal.
We became, for the most part, tacit observers as Veterans Day morphed into parades, displays of mechanized might, and maudlin sentiment — omens of a culture lurching once again toward militarism. And soon, Vietnam. Iraq. Afghanistan.
So, I ask you to stand with Veterans For Peace to reclaim Armistice Day. We believe the best way to honor the service of those in the military is to work for peace. We want to be part of a society that acknowledges peace as the ideal, the aspirational end to which everyone who believes in what the United States truly stands for should honor. Isn’t this what you want, too?
For me, the best part is this: By upholding the ideal of peace, we cease to be a nation of war losers. For we have set our eyes on the ultimate prize, the prize that makes war obsolete and lights the path to a viable future. In the words of John Lennon, “I hope someday you will join us …”
John Michael O’Leary is a writer, musician and storyteller. He is an associate (nonveteran) member of Veterans For Peace Chapter 104 in Evansville, Indiana.