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The Longest Day and the Longest War

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Ordinarily, this column, devoted to issues confronting older Americans, doesn't get into more cosmic subjects of war and peace. But the bloviating former headmaster who spoke too long at my granddaughter's graduation lost an opportunity to tell the graduates something they ought to know. He spoke almost nostalgically about World War II, but he didn't mention that the day he was speaking was the 66th anniversary of the most significant event in the war of my youth, my generation.

We gathered in the athletic stadium of my high school that morning to hear the news. It was D-day and American and allied forces had landed on the beaches of Normandy. We heard the voice of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower telling us and the soldiers, sailors and airmen under his command: "You are about to embark on the Great Crusade." There was never a doubt in our minds that this was the beginning of the end of this noble and terrible war and the threat of fascism that had occupied most of our young lives.

Now, we are engaged in an endless, pointless 10-year-old war -- the longest in our history -- against corrupt and backward Third World nations that were and are no threat to us. They are certainly not in the same league as the Nazis, the Japanese and the old Soviet Union. But these wars are robbing us of the national pride and the sense of purpose that we felt in 1944 and have passed on to our children and grandchildren.

For my generation and its boomer children, the financing of Medicare, Medicaid and the dozens of domestic programs have been compromised by the costs of these wars. Deficits are wrongly blamed on Social Security and social insurance programs for the poor and elderly, but not the wars. Ironically, the wars are being paid for, in part, with money borrowed from the Social Security trust fund.

More tragically, these wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere have now cost our treasury -- which means you and me and our kids -- one trillion dollars and thousands of lives -- more than 4,000 American dead in Iraq and more than 1,000 dead in Afghanistan -- and more thousands of the dead and terribly maimed here and in the countries we say we seek to save. My generation's war came to an end that was always in sight; these wars today are neverending.

Imagine what even part of that trillion dollars could have done in this country for health care, long term care, education and the renewal of roads, collapsing bridges and decrepit schools. Indeed, it's fair to ask -- in the midst of this longest war -- has it been worth it? Is it still worth it? Nearly ten years and still counting.

As of May 30, at 10:06 A.M., the National Priorities Project, which maintains a computerized counter on the costs of these wars, announced that the U..S. had spent $1 trillion. That's $1,000,000,000,000. So far, $747.3 billion and $299 billion have been appropriated, respectively, for the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. New pending spending measures working through the mostly compliant Congress will add nearly $137 billion. (See www.nationalpriorities.org.) And that doesn't include the costs of burying the dead and healing the wounded and giving comfort to families here and in the countries we occupy.

In practical terms, according to the project, that trillion could have paid for Pell Grants for 19 million of our kids for nine years, health care for nearly 300 million people for a year, the salaries of 17 music and art teachers for a year, nearly 8 million low cost housing units, the cost of 16 million elementary school teachers for a year. If you think you're not paying for these wars, the project estimates that taxpayers in Brooklyn (Kings County), New York will pay $9 billion of their taxes for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This past Memorial Day, television and most of the press gave us unctuous, flag waving interviews with veterans and high-ranking officers who recommended honoring the Americans who died. Edmund Wilson called it "patriotic gore." None was asked if any of these wars were truly just. None was probed on the human and financial costs of these wars.

Only one of our best social commentators, comedian Bill Maher, observed that the U.S. has gotten into more wars than most other nations. Only a few members of Congress, all Democrats, took action to demand that the country get out of the wars in Iraq and tribal Afghanistan, which only wishes to return to the 13th century and grow opium.

Unfortunately, President Obama seems unable to complete what he has promised, like getting out of Iraq. Other great presidents labored, often in vain, to keep the nation out of war; Obama chose to go to war.

Rep. John Conyers, D, Mich., the second longest serving member of the House (44 years), recounted the losses to the American taxpayers as a result of the wars, and what that $1 trillion might have paid for: "We might be enjoying the fruits of a green economy... investments in wind and solar... a single-payer health care system... we'll never know because our political leadership never explored alternative means of achieving peace... instead of overextending our military forces abroad."

He called for the administration to honor its commitment, which seems to be slipping, to leave Iraq by Dec. 31, next year. And he asked colleagues to join the "Out of Afghanistan Caucus" and vote against new funding for the war "because $1 trillion is more than enough."

Unfortunately, but predictably, the mainstream American press has all but ignored the significant and growing movements against the wars. Last month, 18 members of the Senate voted for Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold's amendment to the administration's war spending bill calling for a timetable to redeploy American forces out of Afghanistan. Some of the supporters are among the most senior members of the Senate, including Richard Durbin, of Illinois, the second highest ranking Democrat.

On the House side 92 members have co-sponsored companion legislation to Feingold's. Introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, it would require a timetable for getting out of Afghanistan. In all, more than 100 members have voted for a scheduled withdrawal from a war that has no light at the end of the tunnel.

Rep. Alan Grayson calls his legislation for withdrawal, the "War is Making Us Poor Act," not only because it's costing lives among innocent civilians in Afghanistan as well as allied troops. More importantly, these wars are making us poor in spirit. Grayson pointed out that George Orwell in 1984 noted that it seemed as if America had always been at war in East Asia.

So far, no Republican has joined any of the efforts to end American involvement in Afghanistan. The Republicans are saying in effect, "Let you and the other guy fight" while they wait to see how to make political capital, however it turns out. That's a departure from a president of my generation, Ronald Reagan, who "redeployed" American forces out of Lebanon 1983 after 241 Marines were killed by a terrorist bomb (for which Reagan took responsibility) and he saw no reason to risk more lives.. I think it can be said that fewer Americans died in combat on Reagan's watch, than under George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Why is it that we don't learn, even from the recent past?

Write to saulfriedman@comcast.net Friedman's column, "Gray Matters" may be found at www.timegoesby.net