Memorial Day in Wartime

Another Memorial Day. Of course it’s been around for 103 years, but this is our ninth during wartime, which means we’re simultaneously honoring dead soldiers, while were putting new ones in the ground at Arlington Cemetery.

As of Friday, 4,454 American servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq; 1,595 in Afghanistan. That doesn’t seem like a lot when you consider the more than 58,000 dead in Vietnam and over 415,000 killed in World War II, but we know that today’s singular medical capabilities have allowed for tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines to live today who wouldn’t have made it off the battlefield 40 years ago. Let’s just say it’s been a war of a hundred thousand casualties.

Sadly, the Memorial Days of the last decade have already begun to blend into one another. At first, with the opening of the new World War II Memorial in 2004, they tried to conflate the “Greatest Generation” with current efforts in the Global War on Terror. There was a lot of traditional pomp and expectation around the day, much of which was juiced by the war hawks in the Bush Administration and yes, the American public itself, which had tried so desperately from the beginning to justify the preemptive war in Iraq as morally equivalent to saving Europe from the Nazis.

But today, Memorial Day serves as a much quieter marker of how long the war has dragged on since those heady days of red, white and blue confection. Of course the wreath-laying ceremonies at the war monuments in Washington will still take place; the black leather-vested veterans still sore about Vietnam have already rolled into Washington by the thousands on their motorcycles to wax stridently about patriotism, sacrifice and why war is a necessary evil. The local remembrances will go on, as will the picnics and the parades, the bunting and the tears.

But perhaps more than ever, today’s Memorial Day only underscores, even exacerbates a certain kind of malaise in America today, one more akin to feeling as though one is stuck uncomfortably in a Twilight Zone episode, where time never advances, perhaps worse: we are reliving the same Memorial Day over and over again.

In the 1964 episode “Spur of the Moment,” a woman comes across her younger self on a horse trail and screams hysterically, trying to warn her of the tragic mistakes she is soon to make. She only succeeds in chasing her bewildered self away, and the encounter becomes part of a vicious loop in time: the younger woman indeed marries the wrong man and eventually becomes the bitter middle-aged alcoholic who gets on her horse one day and finds she has one fated shot to make it right. She fails, and history repeats itself – ad infinitum.

So it would seem today. We’ve been told repeatedly over the course of nearly a decade that the military is “making progress,” that it’s halting the enemy’s “momentum” in Afghanistan. But the progress is “fragile and reversible,” so just give it more time. For a greatest hits of the phrase “turning the corner,” Central Asia analyst Joshua Foust compiled it here, the last time Gen. David Petraeus gave his glass-half-full presentation before Congress in March. As for progress being “fragile and reversible,” Petraeus has been lobbing that shopworn caveat since 2007 for both Afghanistan and Iraq, but no one seems to notice, or care.

So Congress gives its routine assent to endless war, despite all the red flags. The money flows. We make the same mistakes. The dead are buried. We honor them at the next Memorial Day.

We’ve long forgotten – like traumatized victims, really – that victory in Afghanistan was already declared, quite elaborately, just before Memorial Day 2003 by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and on the same day in Iraq by President George W. Bush. Yet eight years later, “mission accomplished” has translated curiously into a continued presence of 100,000 U.S troops in Afghanistan, and 45,000 in Iraq, where they serve primarily as “advisers and trainers.” Nearly a year after President Obama declared the combat mission over in Iraq, members of a support brigade were gearing up this weekend in Kentucky, for yet another tour.

We know they won’t be entirely welcome. The message has been coming down Route Michigan since way before the 2009 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) extended the U.S occupation in Iraq. “If they ask us to stay we will probably stay and help them out. If they ask us to just provide them the advising and training support, then we’ll do that,” Gen. Raymond Odierno told the press at the time, ignoring thousands of Sadrists marching in the streets against the pending SOFA agreement.

So what happens when the SOFA is set to expire at the end of this year? We pressure them to ask us to stay. “And all I can say is that from the standpoint of Iraq’s future but also our role in the region, I hope they figure out a way to ask. And I think the United States will be willing to say yes when that time comes,” Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said this month on the prospects. Again, Moqtada al Sadr and thousands of his followers were marching in the streets last Thursday; a month ago an even wider swath of Iraqis turned out to protest the U.S on the eighth anniversary of their “liberation.”

Yet we will stay. Like time stands still.

In so many ways things appear different on the surface but never really change. After all of the Sturm und Drang over our aggressive operational tactics, including a misbegotten excursion into “population centric counterinsurgency” and Three Cups of Tea, not to mention the WikiLeaks revelations about torture, underreported civilian casualties in Iraq, checkpoint killings and “collateral murder,” U.S military forces are still killing civilians “by mistake” and not only are the methods justified, the killing of Osama bin Laden has made everyone a renewed convert to “kinetic” counterinsurgency, including village night raids, torture and targeted assassinations.

Either way, the number of casualties among U.S soldiers is on the rise (for one, U.S soldiers are experiencing more amputations due to IED blasts year-over-year in Afghanistan), as are Afghan civilian casualties. The Taliban still appears to be in the catbird seat, no matter what David Ignatius is saying, and the military continues to resist any real withdrawal despite charges from every corner that the war is a waste of our blood and treasure. Congress is still worthless, just slightly less so. They had another vote last week to start bringing troops home from Afghanistan. The perennial effort lost again, of course, just by a slimmer margin, 215-204.

Last Memorial Day weekend one headline blared, “2010 On Track to Be Deadliest Year for U.S. Forces in Almost Nine-Year-Long Afghanistan War.”

So what’s changed?

This “Groundhog Day” effect – that is, the feeling that one is waking up to the same nightmare everyday – is no where more evident than in the way we fret and brood each Memorial Day about the mental health of the troops,yet the triggers for crisis – continuing re-deployments and inadequate care – are never addressed.

Example: In November 2003, eight months after the Iraq invasion, I wrote a story about homeless veterans in which Rick Weidman, a lobbyist for Vietnam Veterans of America, told me “we are simply not prepared to deal with the mental problems … at a healthy rate,” while the VA insisted it was building capacity to serve what was expected to be a rush of new vets into the system.

In September 2004, Sue Bailey, a former assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told me that “we are not prepared for the body count we are seeing, mental health or otherwise.” Weidman, again, said, “the VA is not geared up and the DoD is not geared up. That’s why some of us have been talking, and you are going to see a major front of veterans saying we need this fixed and we need this fixed now.”

Veterans groups have been talking during the nearly seven years since I did that interview, but is anyone listening?

Around Memorial Day 2004, the Army released a study that said one in eight of its returning soldiers were reporting symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In February of the next year, the VA said one in four of its Afghan and Iraq veterans were being treated for mental health disorders.

By Memorial Day 2008, Bush Administration officials were saying that more than half of the 300,000 veterans treated at the VA so far had some sort of mental health condition. In September 2009, researchers were predicting that 35 percent of returning veterans could be diagnosed with PTSD in the coming years. Meanwhile, the suicide rate among veterans is about 6,000 a year, a rate veterans organizations say is at “epidemic proportions” and “out of control.” According to a report last week, the VA’s suicide hotline logged a record 14,000 calls in April alone.

And yet, how many people know, as they’re flipping their burgers and watching their parades today, that on May 10, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that “unchecked incompetence” by the Department of Veterans Affairs has led to poor mental health care and slow processing of disability claims for veterans? Thus, the majority wrote (.pdf), the VA was violating veterans’ Constitutional right to care in return for their service.

Seems that “gearing up” of capacity at the VA never happened. Veterans of Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth filed the lawsuit against the VA in 2008, alleging that due to backlogs, waiting lists and inadequate services, “hundreds of thousands of men and women who have suffered grievous injuries fighting in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being abandoned.”

Paul Sullivan, executive director of VCS, told Antiwar that their work was far from over. For one, they must see that the court ruling has a practical effect on the VA health care system. Past experience proves it won’t be easy: he acknowledges that it’s been a long ten years of banging on doors and running into the same old walls.

“I was on CNN in 2006. At the time, the number of (Iraq and Afghan) patients at the VA was 200,000. I said it would hit 400,000 and (CNN host) John Roberts looked at me as though I had a horse with wings and had just flown in from fairy land,” said Sullivan. “We are now at the rate of 10,000 patients a month; we are at 650,000 as of December 2010.” He predicts 1 million patients by 2014, and “more than 50 percent will be mental health patients” with a total cost of $1 trillion to meet all the health care and benefits over a lifetime. The war, he said, is “costing a fortune.”

“You know what?” he said when asked about the prospects for prolonged war overseas, “ bring the troops home and take care of them. We will not abandon our veterans again, no, no, no, no, no.”

Yet at the rate we are going, Memorial Day 2014 could come and go and there will still be dead soldiers, protests in the streets, creeping civilian death tolls, veterans killing themselves and neglect at the VA. There will be the obligatory hand-wringing, the stern vows of reform by politicians, Rolling Thunder and a pledge or two for peace – until the next Memorial Day, when we do it all over again.

A more frightening prospect is this is more like “The Hitch-Hiker,” the Twilight Zone episode starring Inger Stevens as the young woman who keeps seeing the same sad hitcher at the side of the road as she drives across country to her “new life.” It turns out that she’s dead – the victim of a car wreck miles back – and doesn’t yet know it. So she drives on frantically with a vague “sense of disquiet” until the truth finally catches up to her.

We know this war policy is dead – Iraq and Afghanistan have given us nothing in return for 10 years of sacrifice. Yet we run from the truth each Memorial Day, papering over our own “sense of disquiet” with red, white and blue. In doing, so we see the same specter of our fate every year and choose to ignore it. Delaying, of course, the inevitable.

Postscript: There have been some 400,000 calls to the VA’s suicide hotline in less than four years, with an estimated 15,000 lives saved. That toll-free number, again, is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.