Iraq and Afghanistan: America's invisible wars
After seven years in Iraq and nine in Afghanistan, residents of York, Pa., talk about how the wars have become like a screen saver: always there but rarely acknowledged.
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"I would say that of our wars that have involved 100,000 servicemen or more, this has had the least engagement from the point of view of the public and society of any major conflict in our history," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and coauthor of the book "Toughing It Out in Afghanistan."Skip to next paragraph
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The reasons for the country's disengagement are familiar. Unlike major conflicts of the past, the present ones have not involved a draft, sparing the vast majority of young men and their families of the worry or reality of being directly affected by the wars. The dangers and casualties of these wars have been borne only by volunteer soldiers.
During the Bush administration, Americans were even prevented from seeing the most emblematic evidence of that danger: the sight of coffins bearing the bodies of American soldiers returning to this country. (President Obama overturned that policy early in his term.) The number of American soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan now stands at 5,401. More than 58,000 died in Vietnam and 405,000 in World War II.
President George W. Bush bucked historic precedent in another way. Not only did he not raise taxes, as occurred in almost every past major war, he actually passed a tax cut. There would be no shared sacrifice even on financial grounds.
The policies of holding Americans harmless renders the war remote and unreal for most, says Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, a Vietnam veteran, and the father of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2007.
"Americans are not asked to participate, and only minimally experience the various effects of one of the longest wars in our history," says Mr. Bacevich.
Although the impact of the present conflicts may be limited, that doesn't mean that the experience hasn't altered the views of Americans. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of Americans – an all-time high in 40 years of polling – believe the United States should "mind its own business" internationally.
As Luther Sower, a World War II vet and retired York County school administrator says, "I don't believe we should be putting our noses in everyone else's affairs. I don't do that in my private life, and I don't think we should do that in the world."
Carroll Doherty, an associate director at Pew, attributes that finding to the severe economic downturn but also to war fatigue.
Bacevich points to another likely change in outlook as a result of what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many, the idea of quick, decisive military victories as a result of superior technology, he says, "has pretty much been demolished."
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It may not be fair to say anyplace in America is typical, but like many other cities and towns in the US, York finds itself remote from the present wars but hardly immune. At least three residents of York County have died in Iraq, although the York Daily Dispatch, the local newspaper, has identified as many as 17 fallen servicemen with local connections.