- - Thursday, March 12, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is a very serious cause for concern, but Americans should be aware of another profoundly devastating epidemic stalking the United States. Last week, the Veterans Administration admitted that as many as 20 American veterans commit suicide every single day.

Of course, that number is only an estimate, because neither the VA nor anyone else knows precisely how many veterans are being sacrificed. But the typical profile of the suicide-soldier is white, enlisted, male and under 30. So add him to the already staggering costs of the wars of 9/11: Because, between 2005-2017, that soldier, sailor, airman or Marine was just one of 78,875 veterans who took their own lives.

According to Stars & Stripes, last week’s hearings before the veteran’s committees of the House and Senate were the typical D.C. gab-fest qua blame-game. Advocacy groups for various interests argued for better veterans health care, worried about access to guns or pointed to a host of familiar problems: “post-traumatic stress disorder, misuse of medication, traumatic brain injuries, financial issue family problems, military sex assault and combat injuries.”

While such explanations may be partially correct, they are closer to the six blind men in John Godfrey Saxe’s classic poem, their descriptions of an elephant falling woefully short: “though each was partly in the right … all were in the wrong.”

The essence of America’s veteran problem is that we have too few of them, even after almost 20 years of warfare. Despite the constant manpower demands of those conflicts, less than half of 1 percent of Americans today wear the uniform. Essentially, less than 1 percent of us fight our wars while the other 99 percent simply tip our caps and thank them for their service.

My 2006 book, “Warheads,” began by noting that “we Americans are as likely to know a resident of North Dakota — our 48th smallest state — as a soldier serving on active duty in the United States Army.” 

Even then, this social segregation of the armed forces was something new in American history, a phenomenon I called fighting wars using “Other People’s Kids.” Had our vaunted all-volunteer force become too isolated, too small to prevail in the post-911 hellholes of counter-insurgency warfare? As those endless wars dragged on, repeated combat tours became common. Three, four and even five assignments to the war zones were the “new normal” for our elite, hard-pressed combat forces, burdens fully shared by their families.

The harsh lessons of Vietnam were either ignored or forgotten. There a generation of grunts were conscripted into service and exposed to only a single year of combat. Even if they survived, many incurred lifetimes of PTSD. One of them was James Johnson, who wrote in his 2010 book, “Combat Trauma,” that trauma was a lot like radiation: “The greater the exposure to traumatic events, the greater the likelihood that psychological injury will occur.”

Where had we gone wrong? Having served in high-level Pentagon positions on both sides of Desert Storm, I recalled the struggles of Army leaders working out the post-Cold War politics of “the peace dividend.” With the Army reduced to almost half its former size, what would happen if the smaller all-volunteer force became embroiled in an extended conflict? No one really said so, but there seemed to be a general understanding that — if a serious world-order crisis broke out — all options would be on the table, including mobilization.

Of course, no one expected that but they didn’t expect 9/11 either. Carefully peruse the voluminous memoirs of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice. Amid those seas of self-justification, you will find that neither mobilization nor even a serious call to the colors were considered as serious options.

Instead, Americans were called to the shopping malls, a nonsensical, hollow “victory” over terrorism by simply returning to normal. In place of mobilization, we effectively drafted our Guard and Reserve forces, augmenting their active-duty brothers and sisters in far-off places last conquered by Alexander the Great. (But even Alexander prevailed for only a short time.)

Left similarly unchallenged then or now were the unintended, long-term consequences of the all-volunteer force: Has the social contract with the American citizen-soldier now become a dead letter in American history? Is some form of military conscription still necessary? Does an all-volunteer military make it more likely that politicians will engage in never-ending adventures like Iraq and Afghanistan?

Most urgent in this election year: Is a country equally indifferent to the lives of the unborn or the fate of its veterans really worthy of remaining free?

• Ken Allard, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.

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