The Hidden Costs of War

Agent Orange victims Nguyen and Hung Vuong Pham, ages 14 and 15, as captured by Brian Driscoll, photographer, in 2008.(Huffington Post, 2013, see link in article)

Agent Orange victims Nguyen and Hung Vuong Pham, ages 14 and 15, as captured by Brian Driscoll, photographer, in 2008.(Huffington Post, 2013, see link in article)

W.J. Astore

If you’re in the U.S. military or you’re a veteran, you probably know casualty figures, especially deaths, from America’s wars.  To cite one example, America lost more than 58,000 men in the Vietnam War.  Their names are inscribed on the “The Wall” in DC.  I’ve been there.  Seeing all those names is a devastating experience.

But “The Wall” undercounts the number of American dead from that war.  Just the other day, I was talking to a veteran, a graduate of West Point, about Vietnam.  He told me he had two classmates who became pilots and who worked with Agent Orange, a toxic chemical defoliant, in Vietnam.  They both died later of brain tumors from their exposure to the chemical. Their names are not on The Wall.

I shared this story with a colleague, and he wrote back that his father’s best friend flew Agent Orange around in the Pacific, relocating it after the war.  After being exposed to it day after day, he died of cancer in his early thirties.  His name is also not on The Wall.

Wars are not over for our veterans after the U.S. government says they are.  Consider the surge in veteran suicides, especially for those in their fifties and sixties.  Estimates vary as to how many Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives, but the number may be as high as 100,000.  PTSD, chronic pain, depression, alcohol and drug addiction, and many other conditions linked to war ultimately become an unbearable load for many of our veterans.

(And as I’ve written about elsewhere, the cost of war was much much higher for the Vietnamese people, to include the continuing costs of exposure to Agent Orange, as shown in this article at Huffington Post)

My point is this: As a country, we just don’t recognize fully the true costs of our wars.  It’s not enough to add up the billions spent or the number of combat deaths.  We need to reckon with the aftermath of our wars, the way that veterans keep suffering and dying from wounds they suffered, many of them hidden from view, but no less real for that reason.  And we need to reckon with the destruction we inflict on other peoples and countries, for the “American way of war” is profligate with firepower, from high explosive and napalm and cluster munitions to Willy Peter (white phosphorous) and depleted uranium.

And maybe, just maybe, if we ever truly reckon with the cost of war to ourselves and others, we’ll strive harder to avoid war in the future.

A coda: Can we ban forever the term “surgical strike”?  Can we ban forever the term “collateral damage”?  Can we ban these and similar weasel words that diminish the horrifying and murderous nature of war?

15 thoughts on “The Hidden Costs of War

  1. “The horror, the horror!” says Colonel Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now. Following World War I many books were published with photographs of the horrible wounds that soldiers suffered with half their faces blown away or total amputees. Since then you see no such published materiel on the scars of napalm or the horrible wounds of shrapnel, or the effects of .radio active munitions on civilians. Two memorable photographs that snuck through to public exposure in Vietnam were of the Vietnamese officer shooting a civilian in the head and of a little Vietnamese girl running naked and scarred down a street after having been wounded. Those two photos helped to turn public opinion of the war.

    Our military and civilian leaders don’t like to let American citizens see the real “horror” of the wars they love to pursue for their devious reasons. One of Bush’s first “I’m the decider” decisions was to prevent the compliant press from photographing even the coffins of the dead coming back Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, without that transparency about the horror of our illegal wars, our compliant press allows the President to make passing reference to ” collateral damage’ as though humans were not the ‘damaged’ ones.

    Even our most ‘progressive’ political figures like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders tip toe cautiously around the issues involved in funding of our wars of choice. To a man, all of the Republicans salute the flag of perpetual war.

    • Very true. I am disappointed in both Warren and Sanders. Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party candidate for President, when speaking on Democracy Now, mentioned the issue of “war” when asked how her positions differed from those of Sen. Sanders.

    • b. travel, everything is candy coated for the American people. We live on a blessed land surrounded by two oceans. But what about Cambodia in the mix of the Vietnam war? We really have not had a real war in our own country. The only ones that suffer the most are our veterans. Do they speak out? Very seldom and the media does not listen to those that live with the spiritual wounds. What about our government that proselytizes in our High Schools telling only about one side of the coin. That is why it is so important that we review our education agenda. We need Humanities back in our schools. We need to understand the forces that are working towards the proliferation of wars. Why when those young soldiers come back we ignore them, we do not give them the necessary medical attention, we allow the slow destruction of their families, they become pariahs in their own land. They do not belong in any place. I live in a quiet middle class community. I just need to go out to do some shopping and I can see them sitting alone with their few possessions on the side. They do not talk. They do not beg, they just sit there looking at nothing, doing nothing, just waiting. I cannot help but feel horrified for the attitude of our government that do not hesitate to send billions of dollars in aid to other countries but that forgets its soldiers in every street of our cities. I dislike the people that judges them. I used to watch the photographs that PBS used to show at the end of the News Hour. What promises did they do to those young men to get them to register? I am old and ready to fight any invader that steps on our land. But to send our children to invade another country without any real reason? When the facts are so twisted that they show the lie behind them? The problem is that you need to have been properly educated to distinguish the lie from the truth. History will be truthful but will sound very cruel in the evaluation of the last 70 years of America. And I say cruel because we had the freedom to have taught the truth to our children but we chose to hide it and made them easy prey for the vultures of war. Only one group of returning soldiers was mature and informed enough to rebel against the system, the Vietnam soldiers and we chose to disregard them. After that first rebellion we just kept buring alive every soldier that returned from a stupid war and try to fight back. Those young men sitting on our streets are silent but they silently scream the truth of our actions. I can hear them.

      • I guess this is mainly in reply to b.traven who missed my original point about media censorship. During Viet Nam there was some press coverage of the nasties of war. There was one photo of a small Vietnamese, tied up with an American pointing a gun to his head. It was a galvanizing photo for the public and many people who were fence sitters or wearing blinders reacted with horror and anger. There were other pictures and reports. The country was organizing around civil rights, women’s rights, Native American rights, Puerto Rican Libre, etc. A conscious decision was made to cut reporting on the mass demonstrations and any real war reporting. Journalists were to be ’embedded’ in the military and their stories vetted by military personal before being sent home for publication. TV complied very well in the sanitizing of war and the trashing of people who spoke out in criticism. That policy has been in effect ever since.

        Independent journalists suffer an extremely high rate of assassination abroad. People who speak truth to power are never popular. And given the current state of corporate control over wars and media and government we are fed ever increasing bowls of rotted pap –if you get your news from the mainstream media. I include everything from Fox 5 to CNN and MSNBC. It is all right wing, conservative mantra. We get extreme right to moderate right wing and are told this is fair and balanced reporting. We get only a rare woman or person of color. We get no progressives but are told middle of the road fence sitters represent that position. Media Matters and FAIR do a pretty good job of tracking the statistics on this misrepresentation.

        As for education: public education was always, I repeat, always designed as an institution for mass social manipulation. Its design was based on the Prussian military model but this little fact is buried. It was also designed to meet the needs of corporations. Period. Thus, the idea that we send our children to school to learn to think and be creative human beings, well rounded in all subjects is pure mythology. Our children are tracked into various models for success. If you are in a white middle-class community they will be tracked for college and maybe more. If in a poorer community, or are a poorer person, you will be taught to lower expectation and held to tighter standards of controlled behavior. You will not be given a pass for aberrations but will be set up on a heavy punitive and humiliating disciplinary path and if a person of color will be put not he school to prison walkway. We teach our children to be conformists, not questioning people. I speak from years of personal experience and much has been written about what I say here.

        As for the nation;s war mongering, let me remind you Eisenhower’s parting words from his presidency. He clearly warned against the rise of the military/industrial complex which was already on the march. War has become the economic frontier for many of the huge corporations. We now throw Prisons into the mix as they make fortunes for the few while enslaving many that are considered throw away human beings. A new form of enslavement.

        You ask what will war bring this country? Resources, control of world resources and cheap labor. Freedom from American limits placed on how people can do business–abusive practices that are allowed elsewhere. Witness the TPP and the current fight over that. Corporations that provide fuel and armaments and aircraft and ships, etc, have a repeat business as war destroys much material goods and they all need replacement. I could go on, but you get the message, I hope

  2. Even “Cold Wars” have casualties as in the Security Personnel @ Roswell, N.M. Area 51 working with Lockheed Martins “Skunkworks” are dying slowly from Lung Ailments due to the effects of the Chemical Fires from the disposal of the Hazardous Materials used in creating the SR 71 Blackbird, Wobbling Goblin, & other Stealth Spy birds Bombers, Recons, and Fighters– Stealthy Coatings…

    • “And maybe, just maybe, if we ever truly reckon with the cost of war to ourselves and others, we’ll strive harder to avoid war in the future.” This sentence is exactly what renewed my hope.

  3. “Surgical strikes” and “collateral damage” are phrases to be used by incumbents. Get ready for the (ahem) treat of the dozens (okay, only a slight exaggeration!) of GOP presidential hopefuls expounding on how, under their regimes, the “Islamic State” will be blown to smithereens, leaving not an atom behind. But first they have to lay out their war plans for overturning “Obamacare” and finding a way around the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage! So cook up a huge bowl of popcorn, folks (you may want to have some potent liquor standing by as well), and get ready for The Greatest Freak Show on Earth, the GOP Presidential Primaries!!

  4. This writing brought back memories of the Vietnam War and the fact that we, as a country, never confronted the truth about the Vietnam War. So, we continue to this day the mistakes of the past. One day, someone will write about the hidden costs of the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war
    , the war on Syria, on Isis. There is nothing but pain and suffering in every war, without exception, and the costs to the countries that are in the war zone, is much worse than we can ever imagine. I believe if we could experience for a week or a month, the pain those who live in war zones do, we would be working much harder to oppose war. Let us dedicate ourselves to insist that our leaders pursue diplomacy vigorously to resolve conflicts. Let us oppose the continued build up of defense budgets, including the modernization of nuclear weapons. Let us demand that our tax dollars be dedicated to improve people’s lives here at home and around the world. We are all one human family. Imagine what our world would look like if the resources we devote to kill and destroy were invested in people needs. Now, Imagine that!!!! I refuse to give up hope as long as I live.

  5. Numbers I recall are that about 250-300,000 died from Viet Nam, many when they returned home. Mental stress, cancers, other autoimmune deficiency diseases, etc.

    Wars were already being sanitized and when Bush came in with Gulf War II, he decided to only count deaths on the battle field from direct attacks. People taken to Germany for medical care from wounds and died, didn’t die from the war according to Bush & Co. I call that cooking the books big time.

  6. OK, you have stated some of the human costs of War (there are likely others hard to describe and quantify), but what about the costs in almighty $$$$s. Munitions, personnel (salaries, retirement, medical benefits etc. etc.) and the Systems of weapons, tactics and intelligence etc. An economist might even give an estimate of “opportunity costs”. So, just what, does the US public get for these costs?
    In the Mexican-American and Spanish-American Wars we got ‘territory’ (an empire kinda) and in WWI & WWII established the USA as the dominant economic power.
    So, after WWII what did the lives and treasure expended in ‘armed conflicts’ buy?

  7. I read all the comments. We all remember the Vietnam war. What about the Korean war? A war that destroyed not only the soldiers but a well known General, General Patton who facing the truth of a government that had forgotten its soldiers remained with them, fighting with them and suffering the loses with them. And when he came back he did not voice all his anger showing the cowardice of those in government. He preferred to remain silent to keep the image of a clean America. Maybe if he had been more aggressive we should never had ended in Vietnam. But he was old school and his country was first.

  8. Pingback: W.J. Astore: The Hidden Costs of War | Vox Populi

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