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Jeffrey Shaffer Headshot

How Many Wars Are Enough?

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Here's an idea: Each time the U.S. ends a military operation there should be public hearings to find out what went right, what went wrong, and what the impact will be on everyday life in this country during the years ahead.

Right now our system for discussing war and its consequences is a jumble of media commentators, think tanks, and Pentagon planners. The last time we had something close to a national debate about the subject was during Vietnam.

Regardless of how you feel about compulsory military service, the draft system ensured that millions of American families had a direct connection to U.S. foreign policy decisions. An all-volunteer force completely changes the social equation.

President Obama recently put the topic of war and our ability to wage it front and center. His proposals for a smaller, more agile military means dropping the concept that the U.S. could fight two wars simultaneously, a change that many Republicans immediately opposed.

If you think the two-war concept could work in practice, my suggestion is to look closely at the Iraq experience. After nine years and about a trillion dollars spent, we have more than 4,000 troops killed, more than 20,000 wounded so badly they'll need medical care for the rest of their lives, and we left behind a country that is struggling to avoid civil war. Who thinks we should ever do this again, times two?

I'm particularly annoyed by simplistic slogans such as, "We have to be ready to do whatever it takes!" The U.S. did that in World War II. The country was all in, fully committed. There was rationing on the home front, wage and price controls, and about 16 million Americans served in the military.

Battlefield mayhem happened every day -- planes crashing, bombs falling, and ships going down with all hands. Yes, we were doing whatever it took, and it was good that we won, and most Americans came away from the whole experience fervently hoping it would never happen again. Two of them were my parents.

Unfortunately World War II has taken on almost mythical status for people who think armed force can be used as a sort of international clean-up service. I understand the rationale. We got a decisive victory back then, the bad guys signed the surrender documents, and we were hailed as liberators. All true. But that world is gone and every war is different.

The one fact that doesn't change is this: war has a cost, in monetary and human terms. If you want a military force big enough to fight Iran and China simultaneously (and don't forget Pakistan) it could be built. But it'll take more than a fleet of drone aircraft and cruise missiles. Are you good to go all-in again, even if "whatever it takes" means putting 10 or 20 million Americans in uniform with an open-ended timeline?

Maybe Obama's plan for leaner armed forces is a good starting point for a national discussion about the usefulness of military expeditions. Let's set up town halls, and Teach-Ins at colleges, and put it all on C-SPAN. I just want to know what Americans think about the realities of war, what we believe it can and can't accomplish, and most importantly -- what kind of price we're truly willing to pay.

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