By a Guest Contributor
The “long war” of today’s era poses challenges very different than those experienced by America during the numerous wars that populate her history. These new challenges require not only a global strategic view and state-of-the-art military technologies, but also fresh approaches to engage a society far removed from the fight. The ability of the United States to effectively resource this “long war” is predicated on changing its domestic strategy to rally the essential popular support.
Although America is seasoned in global conflicts, the centerpiece of this war is fueled by radical ideology, not of conquering land or resources that normally define international competition. Usama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad states “to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do.” The tragedies of September 11th demonstrated the fervor for which these radicals are determined to carry out their mission. One generation removed from Pearl Harbor, most Americans experienced for the very first time the violence and violation felt when attacked on home soil. The unmistakable targeting of the innocent and unarmed was horrifying and resulted in a short-term revitalization of long-lost national pride. But in reality, very few people were impacted personally…the lives of most Americans after that day remained unaltered. Because our self-centered, daily routines have not been challenged, neither has our individual or collective (national) sense of duty and sacrifice.
Democracies historically have difficulty maintaining unified support for protracted wars. It was the intent of both the Japanese and the North Vietnamese (and surely our current ideological foes) to wear us down by inflicting so much blood, expense, and time as to lose popular support. But this popular support most often is directly correlated with economic support to fund war operations. In sharp contrast to the reluctance of today’s leaders to tap into that resource pool, national pride was a primary spring for funding World War II. In addition to the daily sacrifices and rationing imposed during WW II, President Roosevelt reached out directly to each American when he was hard-pressed to keep paying for military operations. Through a much-publicized war bond campaign (which included bringing back the three surviving Mt. Suribachi flag-raisers to inspire further public giving), more than 85 million Americans – half of the population – purchased bonds totaling $185.7 billion.
The recent economic crisis has further created a sense of “isolationism” from the individual accountability we have toward the war effort. When a family is fraught to keep its home or put food on the table, the natural instinct is to focus inwardly. And this fear spreads from community to community when the uncertainty of the future is questioned. This personal (and national) detachment is further intensified as the events of 9-11 fade into distant memory. The battle victories achieved in our current wars aren’t celebrated with parades. They are victories of “preclusion”, the clandestine thwarting of terrorist activities before tragedy occurs. The combination of these factors results in a narrowed world view and disinterest towards circumstances overseas, especially those with a lost connection to our personal lives.
As the duration of both current wars surpasses our previous records, we must become even more aggressive in engaging both the popular and financial support required to sustain our troops. In return, government officials and military leaders must be more diligent in areas of fiscal and operational efficiency. The financial cost to deploy a soldier or Marine in theater for one year is over $1M, and this huge sum cannot be passively “rolled up” and passed along to future generations. We need to better align our defense budget so we can prioritize the spending and invest more wisely. Because even though the financial costs of war are high, they are not comparable to the price of a warrior’s life lost unnecessarily because we have ignored the critical condition of our planes, ships, vehicles, weapons, and technology for far too long.
The United States’ ability to resource the “long war” must start with forging some manner of national consensus and rallying popular support at the grass roots level. With troop levels and casualties rising, the American public is experiencing “war fatigue”. It will become increasingly difficult to persuade Americans that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be won, or are worth the human and financial costs. But we cannot allow our growing preoccupation with domestic concerns sway commitment to our global strategy – or our commitment to the thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have borne the “overwhelming burden of our security”.