Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. It’s true—22 a day, every day. That’s the average. Eighteen hundred and ninety-two have taken their own lives since the beginning of 2014.
There are currently over 2,000,000 veterans of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and likely very soon almost all of our combat veterans from Afghanistan will come home. Many are going to need help. In wars past (barring Vietnam) the entire community would engage in helping veterans because war efforts were seen as national movements. In WWII nearly every family had a relative who’d fought or supported the fight overseas. Everyone had skin in the game. The enemy was clearer, the nation less divided. There was skin in the game.
If we fast-forward to Vietnam, the situation was far less clear-cut. Television allowed Americans to see their sons fighting on the 6 o’clock news every day in realistic color. The war looked more like everyday life than WWII ever had. Those horrors shocked the national consciousness. They brought the people into the streets and while those protests didn’t end the war, they certainly expressed that the American citizenry was invested in it emotionally.
In both cases there was a national focus on the war. In this last one? Not so much. George Bush has famously been accused of telling the nation to “go shopping” in response to our invasion of Iraq. He did no such thing but I think many in the US were hard-pressed during those years to pinpoint exactly what the national sacrifice was going to be beyond carrying out our day-to-day lives acting as if there was no war.
I want to suggest something that some may consider radical but I believe it is the best way to force emotional investment and engagement in the citizenry determining the nature and frequency of future wars.
I’m suggesting the draft. The US should never again engage in any conflict which constitutes a war without implementing a draft. I was in Iraq in 2006 and then again in 2008 in the direct employ of the US government. I was never enlisted. I am not a veteran but I’ve been shot at, rocketed, and shelled more than I’d ever care to repeat. None of my friends, all of whom are good people, ever kept track of what was happening in Iraq or Afghanistan outside of the odd news report. They largely went about their lives getting married, having careers, and having children, all while volunteers fought the war that they allowed their Congressmen to vote to go fight. They were all of draft age. Had there been a draft then they would have been absolutely engaged in the conflict.
And therein lies the problem. Wars in faraway places are easy to ignore. It’s easy to pretend that it’s not happening because it’s not happening to those who are at home going about their business. And so when those volunteers that fought that war come home they’re entering a world where, to many, the attitude is that there has never been a war. To a veteran that’s completely bizarre.
I’m not suggesting that the American people don’t care. I’m not suggesting that you who are reading this do not care. I think you probably do. No, what I’m talking about is national danger. There should be real danger in our nation going to war for both you and I, danger that we may have to pick up a gun and go fight. In that danger there is honesty. There is skin in the game. And if a nation has skin in the game, when its sons and daughters come home there is a national context of a shared experience. That won’t stop veteran suicides but it would at least mean that they were happening in a society that understood why they occurring beyond what the media tells us the reasons are.
We live in cynical times and the disconnectedness of a great many Americans from the wages of war isn’t healthy. One surefire cure for cynicism is responsibility. Next time, and I hope there won’t be one, we should all have to ship out in one way or another or collectively call the whole thing off.