We have lost more than lives in our wars in the Middle East, more than money, more than precious elements of our national reputation. We have also lost our ability to judge our actions or their consequences with a critical eye.
Yes, certainly there has been national debate about whether we should have been involved in those wars, one that has belatedly delivered the message to our political leadership that it is time to bring our troops home. But about one crucial array of issues concerning our involvement we have been stunningly silent: the competence of our military leaders, the effectiveness of the strategies they have employed, and the very structure and character of our military itself.
Clearly, recent headlines have underscored the difficulty we have had achieving our overall objectives in both Afghanistan and Iraq -- after a decade of massive costs in lives and resources -- and raised serious questions about discipline, morale, and the consequences of our actions, both intended and otherwise. And while our political leadership must ultimately be held responsible, it is fair and indeed urgently important to ask to what degree our top military commanders should also be held accountable.
Perhaps our silence is understandable -- to a degree. It was a national scandal how badly our troops were treated in the wake of the Vietnam War. They had sacrificed greatly and served with honor, and it was wrong to take them to task as a group for the misjudgments of those who directed their actions or for a few bad soldiers who committed some terrible misdeeds. In subsequent years, political leaders like Ronald Reagan won great national approval for embracing those troops and trying to redress the wrongs done to them and their reputation.
But as with many policies of the Reagan era -- such as deregulatory fervor, contempt for "big government," jingoism, and the tax-cutting siren song of supply-side economics -- we have taken them too far in the decades since, pushing them to extremes few in either political party dare challenge. We pumped up the volume of patriotic posturing with the sap and testosterone cocktail of country songs and NFL game-opening flyovers and shots of troops rooting for their teams from distant bases. We made any serious discussion of cutting defense budgets virtually impossible, equating it with defeat and a desire to weaken America. The 9/11 attacks and the emotions they stirred only compounded these impulses, fueling an insecurity-driven national mania for massive international displays of our fortitude and resources.
We gave our military virtually everything it asked for. No part of the U.S. government illustrates the excesses of bloated big-government spending more extravagantly than the Defense Department, which, with upwards of $650 billion in spending this fiscal year, a huge 96 percent increase over the last decade, now sucks up the biggest non-entitlement portion of our federal budget. Yet, in the wars we have just been through, we are left with a troubling track record.
In Iraq, let's stipulate that we shouldn't have been there in the first place and attribute that gross misstep to our elected political leaders. But once asked to act, our military brass closely collaborated with their political bosses on a "shock and awe" approach that was costly, absolutely devastating to many innocents among the Iraqi people, and, in the end, as effective at achieving our goals as advertised. Indeed, it was years into the war before it was finally acknowledged that we needed to change course with "the surge."
When our AfPak military strategy also proved to be frustratingly ineffective, they dialed up a surge there too -- despite the many and profound differences between the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan as in Iraq, our actions, despite efforts to win public support, have also produced profound alienation, at least in part due to a backlash against a steady number of incidents of what the military calls "collateral damage." Such incidents inevitably occur in warfare, but given our political debate, even apologizing for these mistakes -- acknowledging them as errors -- has been made to seem a sign of weakness. From Abu Ghraib to the burning of the Qurans in Afghanistan, from urinating on corpses to the murder of civilians, there have been multiple such incidents -- yet there is little appetite to ask why so many have occurred or whether some aspect of our military or the way it is being run is contributing to their frequency.