If you want to get a little bit of a sense of what the wars are like in Afghanistan and Iraq — a small, distant sense of the on-the-ground horror — pick up a book of color photos called, “2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die.” It’s chilling.
Most Americans have conveniently put these two absurd, obscene conflicts out of their minds. There’s an economy to worry about and snappy little messages to tweet. Nobody wants to think about young people getting their faces or their limbs blown off. Or the parents, loaded with antidepressants, giving their children and spouses a final hug before heading off in a haze of anxiety to their third or fourth tour in the war zones.
The book is the work of the photographer Peter van Agtmael, who has spent a great deal of time following United States combat troops in both countries. One of the photos in the book shows an Army captain standing exhausted and seemingly forlorn on the blood-slicked floor of a combat support hospital in Baghdad. Van Agtmael was sensitive to the heavy psychological load borne by the medical personnel, writing in the caption:
“Their humor was dark and their expressions often flat and distant when they treated patients. The worst casualties were given nicknames. One soldier melted by the fire caused by an IED blast was called ‘goo man.’ But certain casualties would hit home, especially injured children. Some staff resorted to painkillers and other drugs.”
The war in Afghanistan made sense once but it doesn’t any longer. The war in Iraq never did. And yet, with most of the United States tuned out entirely, we’re still suiting up the soldiers and the Marines, putting them on planes and sending them off with a high stakes (life or death) roll of the dice.
“2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die.”
Or maybe it’s the third tour, or fourth, or fifth. The book’s title came from graffiti scrawled on a wall at an Air Force base in Kuwait that was one of the transit points for troops heading to Iraq. America’s young fighting men and women have to make these multiple tours because the overwhelming majority of the American people want no part of the nation’s wars. They don’t want to serve, they don’t want to make any sacrifices here on the home front — they don’t even want to pay the taxes that would be needed to raise the money to pay for the wars. We just add the trillions to deficits that stretch as far as the eye can see.
To the extent that we think about the wars at all, it’s just long enough to point our fingers at the volunteers and say: “Oh yeah, great. You go. And if you come back maimed or dead we’ll salute you as a hero.”
And what are we sending them off to? There’s a photo of Nick Sprovtsoff, a sergeant from Flint, Michigan, lying awake in his bunk at a patrol outpost in Afghanistan. He looks like a tough guy in the picture, but he also looks worried. The caption says:
“On his third tour, he was there to advise a local platoon of the Afghan army. The Afghan soldiers rarely wanted to patrol, preferring to watch DVDs and smoke hash. Their favorite movie was ‘Titanic.’ “
A clear idea of the pathetic unwillingness of the American people to share in the sacrifices of these wars can be gleaned from a comment that President Barack Obama made in his recent address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “We are a country of more than 300 million Americans,” he said. “Less than 1 percent wears the uniform.”
The president was not chiding those who are not serving, he was only intending to praise those who are. But the idea that so few are willing to serve at a time when the nation is fighting two long wars is a profound indictment on the society.
If we had a draft — or merely the threat of a draft — we would not be in Iraq or Afghanistan. But we don’t have a draft, so it’s safe for most of the nation to be mindless about waging war. Other people’s children are going to the slaughter.
Instead of winding down our involvement in Afghanistan, we’re ratcheting it up. Obama told the VFW that fighting the war there is absolutely essential. “This is fundamental to the defense of our people,” he said.
Well, if this war, now approaching its ninth year, is so fundamental, we should all be pitching in. We shouldn’t be leaving the entire monumental burden to a tiny portion of the population, sending them into combat again, and again, and again, and again