The Occupy Wall Street movement slogan “We are the 99 percent” is ironic to many of those who are serving, or have served, in Afghanistan or Iraq. Our servicemen and women are not the 1 percent of Americans whom OWS condemns. Rather, this 1 percent goes ignored by the self-proclaimed 99 percent in Zuccotti Park, as well as by those looking down on the protesters from their offices at Goldman Sachs or Citibank. And it is not lost on those fighting in Afghanistan that it was bank accounts, not an interest in or concern for those patrolling Kandahar, that motivated the protesters to take to the streets in cities across America.
The 1 percent who volunteered to serve in the armed forces, and their families, are about the only Americans left who closely follow events in places such as Helmand and Kabul. Most thoughtful Americans could instantly tell you who is pushing for a “9-9-9” tax plan, but ask them to name the commanding general of more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and they would not have a clue. (The answer is Gen. John Allen.) Many well-meaning people who debate tax rates and mortgage foreclosures are unaware of a young Army Ranger sergeant named Kristoffer Domeij, who left behind a wife and two children when he was killed last month on his 14th deployment to combat.
The public apathy that has long characterized our involvement in this war is obviously, in large part, the result of an all-volunteer military force that has left the 99 percent blissfully unaware of the daily triumphs and tragedies that mark the lives of many of their fellow citizens a world away. As a former Army infantryman who returned home from Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2007 to a country largely supportive of its troops — though generally uninterested in what they actually do — I would never wish upon this generation of veterans the scorn with which Vietnam veterans were shamefully greeted. To those for whom this war was a defining moment, however, or for the families of those who never returned, the near-total lack of public discourse on the war in Afghanistan is troubling.
Absent public engagement and debate, troops have deployed and re-deployed in a decade-long cycle that is occasionally interrupted when an explosion shatters their bodies, sending shock waves through their families back home. But no matter what happens there, events are drowned out by the cacophony surrounding the financial mess, or by a popular culture seemingly designed to anesthetize itself from its economic worries.
After a decade in Afghanistan marked by some successes and no shortage of frustrations, it is apparent that there are no easy answers there. Yet should we Americans not have some room in the public square for a discussion of a war in which 13 coalition troops and civilians were added to the death toll in the course of one bloody day just a few weeks ago? With no sense of urgency among the public, both political parties are free to press ahead with a military strategy that apparently enthuses few, sometimes appearing to settle for the least bad options in the absence of any obviously good ones.
Of course, the answers are not likely to be found in a tent in Zuccotti Park or at a hedge fund across the street. But something is wrong with a nation in which the public is divorced from the reality of this long war, the prosecution of which has become as foreign to most Americans as the exotic financial instruments created on Wall Street.
Back in 2005, not even halfway into our decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, my grandfather, a World War II veteran, sometimes used to scan the headlines of his newspaper, toss it aside in disgust, and complain loudly, “Don’t they know there’s a war on?” Sadly, the answer now is the same as it was then. Some Americans will, in fact, pause this Veterans Day to reflect on the sacrifices made by the United States’ latest generation of veterans. And that is a good thing. But, come Monday, as the opening bell ushers in a new day on Wall Street, U.S. soldiers heading out on patrol will once again be the furthest thing from many minds.
The writer, an Army infantry officer from 2003 to 2007, is a Presidential Management Fellow in the Defense Department. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the policy or position of the U.S. government.