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.

By , Correspondent

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    Historic downtown York is quiet on a winter day. A city in south central Pennsylvania, York was founded in 1741 and during the Revolutionary War served as the temporary capital of the Continental Congress.
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Standing in Continental Square in this southern Pennsylvania town in the early 1940s, it wouldn't have taken long to divine the subject foremost in the minds of the citizenry.

You would have seen young men in olive-drab uniforms trudging up from the train station, looking for something to do to kill the few hours of their layover. Many of them would have dropped by the USO post in the square, where they would have been directed to an old schoolhouse over on Beaver Street to grab a bite to eat, play board games, and, if they stayed long enough, enjoy a dance with a pretty local girl.

Elsewhere in the square, you would have spied residents standing in line at a small booth to buy US war bonds. In the windows of all the shops and the big department stores – Bear's, Wiest's, and Bon-Ton – you would have seen large posters drumming up support for the war effort or darkly warning about staying on the lookout for Nazi spies.

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IN PICTURES: York, Pa., reflects on the wars

If you had hung around long enough, no doubt you would have been swept up by community campaigns to collect scrap metal or tires for the defense industry. You would have heard boastful references to "the York Plan," a civic initiative that brought local manufacturers together to win huge armament contracts. And certainly there would have been some grumbling as well – about gas rationing and the dearth of ladies' stockings, a consequence of silk being siphoned off to make parachutes.

World War II, in other words, was inescapably Topic A – and probably every other letter of the alphabet as well – in York as it was in every other small town or big city in America in those days.

Today, nearly seven years since the invasion of Iraq and nine years into "the war on terror" – one of the longest conflicts in US history – York's Continental Square tells a different story. Or rather it tells no story at all in terms of the present military entanglements. There isn't a single visible clue that the country is at war. No posters. No banners. No ribbons. Nothing. Even the peace vigils that were held in the square every Friday afternoon starting in 2002 were discontinued in 2008.

"It's almost a forgotten war," says Leada Dietz, a coordinator of People for Peace and Justice, the York group that organized those demonstrations. "It's almost as though there is no war."

York, a manufacturing town of about 40,000 (in a county of 425,000) known for making barbells and Harley-Davidsons, is hardly alone in its aloofness from the war. Other than places where military bases are located and among military families, the two wars seem far from the emotional heart of Americans these days. Iraq and Afghanistan have become America's screen savers – always present but rarely focused on – something that opponents and supporters alike agree, though for different reasons, isn't good for the men and women fighting there nor for any clear sense of national purpose.

Polls bear out the wars' invisibility. A CBS News/New York Times survey conducted in early February found 52 percent of respondents identified the economy as America's most pressing problem. A mere 3 percent named the Iraq and Afghan wars as the nation's biggest worry.

It may be that a lengthy US conflict has never registered so faintly in the American psyche.

"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."

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."

* * *

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.

It is a town of little ostentation with modest brick and frame homes in tidy neighborhoods, an old fashioned farmers' market (with a heavy Amish flavor), and major roads lined with all the familiar chain stores and restaurants. The city, once a stage for ugly race relations, recently elected its first African-American mayor. The city leans Democratic in a county that tends to go Republican.

Like many towns in America, York was a manufacturing city, but it had a knack for building big, heavy things. Safes were made there. And farming equipment. Tanks and ordnance as well. Perhaps the most iconic sight in York is the statue along Interstate 83 of a man holding a barbell above his head at York Barbell. Caterpillar closed up shop a decade ago, and Harley-Davidson is shutting its plant there, too.

The town honors its military past with markers or monuments commemorating wars all the way back to the Revolution. In Continental Square, it even acknowledges the city's dubious distinction of being the largest Northern city to surrender to the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Craig Trebilcock is a York lawyer in the Army Reserve who was in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, during the invasion and early reconstruction. To his delight, upon his return home, he found an "incredible" amount of goodwill directed toward his generation of soldiers.

"There is none of this Vietnam War reception when you come home," he says. "When you come home, you are treated like a hero, and your family's sacrifice is definitely recognized."

But over time, after his return, he came to realize that the goodwill did not necessarily mean that the wars those soldiers were fighting figured prominently in the psyche of the people of York.

"The war doesn't affect anyone," he says, referring to the two wars, as many do, as though they are one. "The town really prides itself on the York Plan from World War II, and every family was involved in Victory gardens and bond drives and collections for the defense industries."

But that is far removed from what he sees around York today. "It's a consequence of the way we go to war these days. It doesn't affect the general community, whether it's York or Des Moines or anywhere else," he says. "It's a volunteer Army, so there isn't a general sacrifice at a personal or economic level. There's no rationing. We're an affluent country. We can go fight two wars at the same time, and most people don't even feel a pinprick."

"Frankly," he adds, "I don't think the average person thinks about these wars at all. They're more concerned about what's going on in 'Lost' or who's winning 'American Idol' than what the country is doing overseas."

His wife, Terrie, a high school history teacher, feels the same way. Although she says she received support from family and close friends when Craig was in Iraq, she was surprised how others reacted upon learning she was the spouse of a deployed soldier. "The reaction you get from people you don't know very well – it's almost as though you have a disease, as though they were worried that I'm going to ask something of them," she says.

At her children's school, she was disappointed to find officials flummoxed by her desire that her kids be excused when the school broadcast television news about the war.

To her surprise, she finds the most consistent engagement in the wars among the students at Hereford High School, across the border in Maryland, where she teaches.One group, "For Our Troops," sends care packages to troops, organizes ongoing memorials to two of its alumni killed in Iraq, and even drafted model legislation limiting protests near soldiers' funerals. (Members of an antigay Kansas church had infamously demonstrated at the funeral of a Maryland soldier.)

Some of the students from her school have also chosen to enlist, knowing the near certainty of being deployed to a combat zone. "To those kids, the war is immediate and tangible," Mrs. Trebilcock says, "but I don't think most people get it."

To her, America's detachment from its wars demonstrates what she feels is a lack of backbone in the country, an unwillingness to make sacrifices for a greater good, either at home or abroad. "We are," she says, "spineless creatures."

Daniel Meckley III, a retired corporate executive, still remembers the fervor that enveloped his hometown after Pearl Harbor. "You could barely get into the recruiting offices," he says. "Everyone wanted to get into the services. It was a war everyone believed in."

Every other house, it seemed, displayed a flag with a blue star in its window, indicating a son in the service. As the war persisted, many of those blue stars were changed to yellow, indicating a son killed in combat.

Mr. Meckley recalls his father becoming an air raid warden and his future wife a candy striper in the hospital. Everyone, it seemed, was buying war bonds and hauling their scrap metal, iron, and aluminum foil to collection sites. While men joined the service in prodigious numbers, women flocked to factories to help meet defense production needs.

"There was an indomitable spirit then," says Meckley, who became a Navy officer during the war. It is a communal spirit he sees as absent now. "I don't think [the war] even registers with a lot of people. I'm not sure people even connect it with 9/11 anymore."

Phil Avillo, another wartime veteran – he lost a leg as a marine in Vietnam – agrees that the war is far from people's minds because it is far from their daily existence. "We no longer see the connection between terrorism and the way we live our lives," he says. "9/11 did that but only for a month or so, until George Bush said, 'Let's go shopping.' "

Instead, Mr. Avillo, a retired York College history professor and twice an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress, says when the US first attacked Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Americans should have been forced to reduce oil consumption as well. "The president should have made the case that reducing our consumption of foreign oil was one more piece of the war on terror."

Instead, he says, the war goes on, "but for most people, life hasn't changed at all. Most communities are unaffected."

The war, compounded by politics back home, has made him question the ability of any leader to rally the country to unite behind a cause.

Dana Shearon, an instructional aide whose brother, Philadelphia policeman Gennaro Pelligini, was killed in Iraq in 2005, tries to keep the war vivid by speaking about Gennaro to her students at York Middle School whenever she can. "I talk to them about the Pledge of Allegiance," she says. "I tell them I always thought it was important, but it took the death of my brother for it to really sink in."

The war, she admits, has left her with views she prefers not to harbor. "When my brother was killed, I was working for a contractor who fingerprinted immigrants. I remember fingerprinting an 86-year- old woman from the Middle East and thinking, Was it your kids who did that to my brother? Was it your grandkids?" It is a prejudice, she says, she tries to choke down.

* * *

To say there is no visible sign of the present conflicts in York is not true, and that is thanks in particular to Jack Sommer, a Pittsburgh transplant who owns the Prospect Hill Cemetery, eight blocks north of Continental Square.

In early August 2005, some disturbing news caught Mr. Sommer's attention: Eight soldiers from Pennsylvania had been killed in Iraq in the span of five days.

"It got me thinking," Sommer says, "we should do something about this."

Sommer's older brother had fought in Vietnam, and Sommer never forgot the poor treatment accorded returning soldiers as a result of an unpopular war. No matter how people stood on the intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan, he didn't want American forces disgraced or ignored. But what could he do?

The answer surrounded him there at Prospect Hill. Soldiers from every American war since the Revolution are buried on the grounds of his cemetery. He decided that Prospect Hill was a fitting place to honor all American soldiers who had given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beginning in 2005, Sommer arranged to plant an American flag on Prospect Hill for each soldier killed. Eventually, he created three sections, one for all Americans killed in Iraq, another for all Americans killed in Afghanistan, and a third for Pennsylvanians who died in the two conflicts, with a state flag for each.

From April to December, when the display is taken down for the winter, the hillside quivers with more than 5,000 flags. Huge banners for the dead soldiers with York ties fly along George Street by the cemetery. Local businesses sponsor the banners, which bear the photographs of soldiers.

Whenever there are an additional 100 to 150 new deaths, Sommer schedules a memorial ceremony during which all the new names are read aloud. It's been a tangible gauge of the intensity of the two wars, as combat deaths in Afghanistan now vastly outpace those in Iraq. In the spring, he replants all the flags. It used to be that just his laborers did the work, and it would take them half a day to complete the job. Now, the flag plantings attract 30 or 40 volunteers each spring. They finish the work in under an hour.

"I think this is our responsibility as a democracy, to be aware of the price that we are paying," Sommer says. "What shouldn't happen is that it goes unrecognized."

The display resonates with many people, and not only military families. Callers check in after severe weather to make sure the flags remained standing and to volunteer to restore them if they didn't. Sommer's assistant, Steliana Vassileva, whose younger brother served in Iraq, says that one woman stops whenever she passes by to say a prayer. "And she has no one in the military," Ms. Vassileva says. "She just feels a sense of ownership."

No one sees the young woman unless, perhaps, the occasional cemetery worker. It is a quiet, solitary reflection that the US is, in fact, a country at war – even if many Americans have to remind themselves.

IN PICTURES: York, Pa., reflects on the wars

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