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The Costs of War, Collective Amnesia, and Learning From Experience

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Last year I attended the annual Memorial Day commemoration at a military cemetery. A retired general officer was among the speakers. I had seen him over the years in various settings and he was always super patriotic and upbeat. This time his presentation sounded different. He spoke of how acutely he felt the burden, more than 20 years on, of having sent men and women into harm's way, and how deeply he felt responsible for their injuries and deaths. You could hear his voice tremble. Then he said something that startled me. With complete conviction, this patriot's patriot said that the costs of war are so great that we just have to find ways to solve our problems that do not involve killing one another.

A decorated commander from the Fallujah conflict often speaks publicly about his experiences. As tough, dedicated and respected as they come, each time I've heard him speak, he will say "war is obscene." None of the scores of military personnel I've met over the past five years, especially those who know or work closely with returning service members, veterans, and their families have a hankering for war. They know the impacts too well. They know the costs are staggering and multi-dimensional. Then why this new cycle of loose talk and bellicose rhetoric on the part of some of our legislators and presidential candidates?

In a recent piece in the New York Times, news analyst Scott Shane writes that "Despite a decade of war, most Americans seem to endorse 'the politicians' martial spirit.' In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 58 percent of those surveyed said the United States should use military force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Only 30 percent said no. Yet, 75 percent of respondents said that Mr. Obama was withdrawing troops from Afghanistan at the right pace or not quickly enough, a finding in keeping with many indications of war weariness."

One expert who has studied security threats since the Cold War found it puzzling: "You'd think there would be an instinctive reason to hold back after two bloody noses in Iraq and Afghanistan." Another expert on conflict prevention said, "Faced with an intractable security challenge, both politicians and ordinary people want to 'do something,' and nothing 'does something' like military force." He sees an old pattern. And here's the line that jumped out at me:

"It's true throughout history: there's always the belief that the next war will go much better than the last war," he said.
2012-03-06-er.war1.jpg Why is our memory so short? My perspective in this blog is the wellbeing of our service members, veterans and their families. I'm a psychologist and Zen teacher, not a veteran, although I have personally known the impacts of war through my father's military service. As a civilian, I've come to not only understand, but also love those whom our Coming Home Project serves. I'm not concerned about their politics or religion, and they're not concerned about mine. I help create environments where they can reconnect, support one another, heal and return to life. Unlike the Vietnam era, most civilians now can distinguish the war from the warrior. Many civilians find meaning in knowing and supporting our veterans and their families and in helping foster healing and true reintegration.

When our security is actually threatened, we must defend ourselves. In this interconnected world, we must help stop wanton slaughter and genocide abroad. Our archetypal protectors: police, firefighters, service members, play a critically important role. Along with the general officer's words at the Memorial Day ceremony, "We must find ways to solve our problems that do not involve killing each other," the words Pete Seeger wrote, "When will we ever learn?" also echo in my mind.

In a meeting at the Pentagon sponsored by the Department of Defense's "America Supports You," an organization composed of care providers from around the country, then just-appointed Secretary of Defense Gates unrolled the idea of "smart power." I breathed a sigh of relief. After five years of intensive involvement with the people and the wounds of two long wars, I am proud that our military seems to be, at this critical juncture, a force for thoughtfulness.

Learning from experience is one of the life's core skills. But as a society and a species we still have not mastered it. The definition of insanity, Einstein is reported to have said, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. When smacked upside the collective head by trauma that highjacks our capacity to think, or when faced with apprehension about a military threat, we still tend to rush to judgment, rush to "do something," to flex our muscles. Bravado substitutes for resourcefulness and true strength. We lose our ability to respond, to stop, look and listen. To thoughtfully consider a wide variety of responses and their potential impacts. When we lose our response ability, we rush into decisions whose consequences last generations.

Another expert who has long studied public opinion about war and worked in the administration of several presidents said that as the November election approaches, inflammatory oratory is likely to increase, even if it is unsuited to a problem as complicated as Iran's nuclear ambitions. "This is the standard danger of talking about foreign policy crises in a campaign," he said. "If you try to explain a complex position, you sound hopelessly vague."

The thousands of service members and veterans I have had the privilege to know and serve do their job skillfully and with dedication. As the possibility of a major new war looms, who is keeping in mind their best interests? The best interests of their families? Who is looking out now, as policy is being made by our representatives? Who is looking out now, before the next generation of wounded? We have learned from experience: this is all of our job.