Ladies, would you please excuse us for a moment? I would like to speak frankly with the young men here about an issue of mutual concern.
Are we alone? Good. Now, none of us wants to die. But let's be honest with each other. There are things that we fear more than death. You know what I'm talking about.
And so, before you enlist in the Army, or if you are already in the Army, before you deploy to Afghanistan - there are alternatives to deployment - I think you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to reflect slowly and carefully on a recent study by doctors at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany - where most wounded troops are sent before returning to the U.S. - of U.S. combat injuries in Afghanistan.
Grim combat statistics that one military doctor called "unbelievable" show U.S. troops in Afghanistan suffered an unprecedented number of catastrophic injuries last year, including a tripling of amputations of more than one limb.
In 2009, 75 service members brought to Landstuhl had limbs amputated. Of those, 21 had lost more than one limb.
But in 2010, 171, 11% of all the casualties brought to Landstuhl, had undergone amputations, a much higher proportion than in past wars. Of the 171, 65 had lost more than one limb.
Injuries to the genital area were also on the increase. In 2009, 52 casualties were brought to Landstuhl with battlefield injuries to their genitals or urinary tract. In 2010, that number was 142.
Dr. John Holcomb, a retired Army colonel with extensive combat-medicine experience, said he and other doctors involved in the study were shocked by the findings, which he labeled as "unbelievable."
"Everybody was taken aback by the frequency of these injuries: the double amputations, the injuries to the penis and testicles," said Holcomb, now a medical professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. "Nothing like this has been seen before." [my emphasis]
This is what I would like you to reflect on, slowly and carefully: what would it be like to live with these kinds of injuries for the rest of your life?
None of us wants to die. But to be blunt, after the fact, your death is something that other people deal with. Being maimed for life is something that you deal with. Alone.
Other people will try to help you. But when the lights are out, and everyone else has gone to sleep, you're going to be thinking about your decision to enlist, and your decision to deploy, and maybe wishing that you had given it a little more thought at the time.
Now, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for others is one of the most noble things about life on earth. But one still has to evaluate a particular sacrifice, and ask oneself carefully whetherthis particular sacrifice is justified by its expected benefit to others.
A firefighter doesn't just run into a burning house willy-nilly. He makes an evaluation of the likely risks and benefits of a particular course of action - an evaluation that he's been specifically trained to make.
The firefighter has an advantage over many young men facing a war, because the political evaluation of a war is not something that young men are generally trained for. The Army can try to train you to try to avoid stepping on a bomb. But no-one has trained you for making apolitical evaluation of whether the war in Afghanistan as it exists today is worth being maimed for. You have to figure this one out for yourself.
When they sent Pat Tillman to Iraq, he wrote in his journal, "I hope [this war is about] more than oil, money & power. ... I doubt that it is." If Pat Tillman, who was later killed in Afghanistan, had followed that thought through to its logical conclusion, maybe he would be bouncing a child on his knee today. Because the logical implication of what he wrote is: you cannot trust the government to decide for you when sacrificing your life and limbs is justified.
When former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted in his memoir In Retrospectthat he supported escalating the Vietnam War in 1967 even though he believed the war to be unwinnable, Max Cleland, who lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam in 1968, said: "I wish he had told us that then."
In 1967, U.S. government officials were willing to send young men off to be killed and maimed in a war which the government officials did not believe to be winnable.
Before you enlist or deploy, I think you have to ask yourself whether we still live in the same country that sent Max Cleland off to be maimed in a war in which our leaders did not believe. If we do, then I think you have to make your own evaluation of whether this particular sacrificeis justified.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, theWashington Postreported last month.
I think this has to be part of your evaluation.
Two-thirds of the people you're sacrificing for don't believe in this war. That's something you have to think about.
In general, two-thirds of Americans could certainly be wrong. But they might well be right, and you have to think about that too.
Now, I know that the young men who decide to enlist are facing all kinds of things: lack of economic opportunities, expectations of family and friends, trouble with the law.
But I think you've got to consider the fate of those young men in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and ask yourself whether you may be running from the frying pan into the fire.
And I know that the decision to refuse to deploy is an excruciating decision. But whatever you have to deal with, you'll face it with two arms and two legs. That's something to think about too.
And finally, I think all of us need to think about our role in encouraging young men and women to endure unjustified and unnecessary sacrifice. There is a feasible path forward that ends this war. It consists chiefly of three related elements: a substantial drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer, real negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, and abandonment of the goal of keeping U.S. troops and bases in Afghanistan past 2014. The relationship is this: abandoning the goal of a permanent military presence in Afghanistan will facilitate real negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Real negotiations with the Afghan Taliban will facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The two-thirds who say the war is not worth it and the remaining one-third are not evenly distributed in the population, and that's a key part of what keeps this war going. America's tree-huggers and tofuheads gave up on this war a long time ago. But America's jocks are keeping this war going, because it's the jocks who serve, and if America's jocks turned against the war, Congress would stop supporting it, and the war would end, no matter what the Pentagon says. The Pentagon may control President Obama, but it doesn't have to control America's jocks.
Contrary to popular prejudice, jocks are smart. Jocks can think for themselves. You don't need a big vocabulary to think for yourself about where your true interests lie. Pat Tillman was a jock's jock. He thought for himself. We all need to think for ourselves, and put an end to this sorry war.
Here's a first step: tell President Obama to follow through on his promise with a substantial drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer.