Sunday, March 06, 2011

Struggling Against The Unreality Of Our Politics

Even as Libya descends to civil war and other Muslim countries demand greater democratic accountability for their leaders; even as the governor of Wisconsin continues his Sisyphustic struggle against the public employees of his state; even as members of the House Republican majority and the Obama Administration meet to hammer out a budget agreement for the rest of the fiscal year; in the midst of all this, a word needs to be said that so much that has captured our imagination and stoked the fires of our public discourse is done without a single glance at some fundamental realities that, were they taken in to account, would challenge every one of our cherished assumptions. What follows is not a partisan attack. Our so-called leaders, Democratic and Republican, Congressional and Executive, have failed to do so on a matter of such national moral import that even drawing attention to it seems a monumental struggle against the inertia of a kind of national dream state. We have, for too long, been lulled to sleep in our public life by fairy tales and polite fictions that ignore some basic realities that, were our elected officials adults, treating the voters like adults, would completely alter the way we are talking about our current state of national affairs.

This particular problem has been made more clear to me in recent weeks as my wife and I struggle with teaching our older daughter that "growing up" means more than being granted privileges. It also means acting out of a fundamental respect and concern for the feelings and integrity of others. It means acknowledging that the world does not revolve around one's own needs, but rather one must place one's own life in service of others. Being a mature adult means accepting certain responsibilities that are uncomfortable, compromise our own desires, but serve our longer term interests.

As the political clock ticks away in Washington, and more and more folks in Congress whisper and grumble about our fiscal state of affairs, about the need to cut here and slash there, to eliminate this program or that whole department, including cutting $100 billion from the Department of Defense, no one that I recall has mentioned a fundamental reality.

Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not; regardless of the questionable legality regarding the way we arrived here; whether we did or did not support it, we cannot, must not, forget that we are a nation at war. Despite the declaration that our combat troops have left Iraq, we currently, and for the foreseeable future will continue to have around 50,000 American service personnel in Iraq. As of May last year, we had nearly 100,000 American military personnel in Afghanistan. With all the talk of fiscal austerity, of what we need to surrender for the sake of posterity, of not abandoning our most vulnerable to the whims of the market, of ensuring that we continue to fund law enforcement agencies like the EPA and OSHA, we have not, as much as I look, ever noticed that those Americans most at risk, those fellow citizens who have voluntarily sacrificed their personal comfort and even identity to serve this great land are those most vulnerable to violent death; as we talk about cutting the budget, including the budget of the Department of Defense, we are not talking about how fewer military personnel, fewer supplies, more vulnerable logistical lines, imperil our troops in places far away.

So much of our politics for a decade now has been conducted with our eyes closed to some fundamental realities. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, several decisions of national import faced us, including dedicating our military to attacking those who had attacked us. The struggle, we were told over and over again, was the equivalent of the Second World War, a fight for national survival. Dedication and sacrifice were demanded. Except, of course, not really. In the midst of deciding to fight a war on two fronts far from our homeland, we simultaneously decided that we could forgo the most fundamental national sacrifice - we wouldn't pay for it. Indeed, not only would we not gather together and sacrifice more of our income and other resources in the form of higher taxes, the very notion of higher taxes was somehow anathema.

For the next ten years, there was a fundamental disconnect between that which was declared our most important, most vital foreign policy - fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - and our most vital domestic policy, economic growth, Instead of deciding that, if we were to carry out the former, we would need to sacrifice much of the latter to it, we figured, as our parents did a generation ago during Vietnam, that we could do both. Now that the inevitable crash has occurred, we have yet to face how distorted our politics and policy has become. To speak of cutting spending on defense even as our sisters and brothers, our husbands and wives, our sons and daughters face the danger and death on our behalf is not only madness; it is a fundamental betrayal of the moral obligation we owe our troops, to remember their sacrifices for us.

Rather than even mentioning "government shutdown", we need to talk about our strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of insisting that any tax increase is off the table, we need to ask those who were most vocal in support of these wars if they are willing to pay for it. Instead of demeaning government service and public employment, we need to remember that some government employees live their lives in threat of death, largely forgotten not only by a political class that continues to believe that wars can be waged, by and large, out of the public eye, but by the public as well. Those taxes that so many complain about not only pay the salary of the guy sitting pushing paper at OSHA that piss off industrialists. Those taxes also make sure our troops have proper supplies, steady and secure supply lines, enough food and fuel and body armor not to have to worry about them. While a government shutdown may not effect our troops in the field, at least immediately, it halts any and all progress toward figuring out how civilian contractors, a vital part of the military supply chain, are going to integrate in to the overall logistical picture. Indeed, were I in charge of a company that might be able to serve the military logistical table in some manner, right now, I'd be backing away from even thinking about submitting a bid for any contracts that might be up. Of course, none of this includes the cuts that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is already implementing, cuts that reduce our service personnel at precisely the time we need more, not fewer, people in uniform.

This is the starting point for any realistic discussion of anything from budgets to our economic and fiscal situation to whether or not to fund the EPA. This is the starting point for talking about jobs. Until and unless we are willing to admit that we have rewarded our military for all the sacrifices of the past ten years by forgetting them, by reducing their ability to do their jobs, by reducing the effectiveness of their tasks, then the blood of those lost in on all our hands. This is about much more, and much less, than the moral and legal questions regarding how our troops got be in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is, instead, about accepting the responsibilities before us, as adults, as moral agents, as mature human beings who understand that our military has been asked to sacrifice so much over the past ten years; now, they are sacrificing their safety and the efficiency of their missions on the altar of fiscal responsibility even as far more vital and basic questions remain not only unaddressed, but even unasked.

We owe it to ourselves, and even more to those who have volunteered to serve the United States and have been rewarded with years-long, multiple tours in far-away countries, strategic and even tactical questions remaining unaddressed, to face squarely and forthrightly the demands their care places upon us. To do anything less would be far more than a failure of historic proportions. To do so would be to show those most vulnerable precisely because their lives are dedicated to our safety and security, that we do not honor that sacrifice.

Virtual Tin Cup

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