Always room for one (or one thousand) more

Reconsidering this blog’s original slogan and raison d’être (“Who’s eating whom…and why”) brought to my mind the most pervasive act of cannibalism playing out in present-day America. I’m referring to the chewing up of our military personnel, in wars of questionable value, carried out over long periods, in distant lands.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama used the military in a way that seemed rhetorically positive but was, beneath the surface, subtly abusive. Holding up the armed forces as a model of teamwork for a squabbling Congress to emulate, the President turned them into just another political football.

Let’s stop fetishizing and adulating the armed forces and instead take a moment to look at how military action chews up America and Americans.

As for America itself, that’s easy: the cost. Our post-9/11 wars will cost at least $3.7 trillion, according to one widely cited calculation. In any case the price is certain to reach well into thirteen figures. There’s no need to detail the social and economic good that kind of money could do at home for our recession-rocked nation.

For the American people, the social costs spread wide. War, especially when conducted in long, repeated deployments, damages and destroys families. When soldiers return with severe physical or mental injuries and disorders, their loved ones and family relationships suffer right along with them.

To quote a recent Pew report, there are 2.2 million veterans alive today who suffered serious injuries while serving, and “the physical and emotional consequences of their wounds have endured long after they left the military.” In addition, a ProPublica and NPR investigation has found that since 2002, over half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated at V.A. hospitals received at least a preliminary diagnosis of mental health problems.

Anyone who’s experienced serious injury or illness of the body or mind knows the strain it puts on families. Life is full of these setbacks already; sending soldiers to war puts thousands more families in painful, stressful straits. Casualties aside, long separations can damage marriages; it’s no surprise that the divorce rate among military personnel has been slowly rising for some time. The “big picture view,” according to Military.com, “shows a military force replete with struggling marriages.” Taken together, all this data makes one thing clear: it’s awfully hard to reconcile “family values” with war.

The veterans’ unemployment rate is also several points higher than in the general population. As the government works up programs to help find work for jobless vets, the very necessity for such measures makes the social costs of war even more obvious.

In other words: If we are to ask who’s eating whom, we can’t avoid one major answer. In more ways than one, our wars make of us a nation eating itself.