President Obama announced this week that in three years, the United States will finally end the war in Afghanistan (speech above, courtesy of PBS).
It’s a strange feeling, watching the President talk about ending a war so many of us had so little involvement in or relation to. I am reminded of President Bush’s suggestion to combat terrorism by “enjoy[ing] life,” to resist fear through apathy, essentially . While I have several friends who are in the armed forces themselves or have siblings who serve, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are background processes in my life’s memory, a part of my adolescent and early adult experience that is integral to the way I think about the Middle East and the role of government, but still viscerally illusionary in its details and its tangible impact on human lives. A significant part of my conscience is glad my family has not been touched by war, that I’ve never had to worry about a family member or lover dying thousands of miles away from home, or experienced myself the primal terror of my own mortality on a battlefield. But while I feel intellectual satisfaction that our nation will no longer have to shoulder these sacrifices in blood and treasure, and I have an enduring respect for our soldiers, I have yet to feel that cathartic relief, the long release of a breath held for thirteen years. The burden of these wars has never fallen upon me directly. I feel a certain guilt – many men and women have died or suffered irreparable wounds in order to protect my cushioned existence, but ultimately, I cannot empathize with their experience, even if I wanted to, as I have only secondary relations to it.
While I believe that having an all-volunteer, professional military is a great policy for shaping a world-class fighting force, it is difficult in a post-draft era to truly think that “the nation” is going to war. A significant part of me believes resolutely that any large-scale endeavor involving the risk of American lives on foreign soil should require collective sacrifice – if a war is being waged to defend the public, that public should also work to ensure victory. Even if we ourselves are not the “boots on the ground,” we should make at least some attempt, if we cannot directly volunteer, to assist and sacrifice for those who do.