Honoring the Troops with Substantive Patriotism

The United States Marine Corps War Memorial, better known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, is seen in Arlington, Va., Monday July 4, 2011, as fireworks burst over Wasington, during the annual Fourth of July display. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Maybe even more than Christmas, the 4th of July might be America’s favorite holiday.

There are the blowout sales at the mall, spectacular firework displays that grace our skies, pit masters serve up mouth-watering ribs, and churches across America outdo themselves in performing patriotic orchestral and choral tributes to the Armed Forces in which military members stand — usually to robust applause — when their service anthems are played.

The way I’d rather see Washington honor the troops this year, however, would be with a pledge to discard the ineffective foreign policy which hurts more than honors them.

Since 9/11, the government has done a number of things in support of service personnel. Over the past 15 years, Congress has raised military salaries by more than 40 percent. They have instituted numerous jobs programs for veterans and expanded the benefits most military members receive. While those are all substantive and welcome gestures of appreciation from the government, they do not offset the far greater harm done by the bipartisan application of the blunt and militaristic foreign policy employed by Administrations and Congresses.

The policy in its own right has failed, as key national objectives have not been met and U.S. interests worldwide have suffered. At a cost of more than $1.7 trillion — and 36,725 U.S. service personnel killed and wounded — the 2003 US invasion and subsequent eight-year occupation of Iraq turned a boxed-in and regionally harmless country in which no terrorist organizations operated, into something far worse: a dysfunctional government that is unable to control its own territory, is repressive of segments of its population, and has become one of the world’s worst breeding grounds for terrorism. The application of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan has fared no better.

By mid-2002, the U.S.-led military operation has eradicated the Taliban from Afghanistan and devastated al-Qaeda, forcing them impotently underground into survival mode. Instead of redeploying the U.S. military and transitioning into a diplomatic and humanitarian mission, Washington chose to slowly increase the number of troops on the ground, believing there was benefit in using Afghan bases as a launching pad to conduct other covert counter-terror operations in the region. But at a cost of $685 billion more — and the lives and limbs of 20,056 American service members — Washington took what had been a minor strategic threat to the U.S. and has turned it into a virtually ungoverned terrorist breeding ground on par with the disaster in Iraq.

The cost from both wars was a combined 56,781 Americans killed and wounded.

Presently, both Presidential candidates promise more of the same foreign policy. Patting our veterans on the back and giving them pay raises, while continuing to casually use their lives to pay for misguided and failed foreign policy, is not honoring. The sons and daughters of our nation deserve better.

The first step is for the nation’s legislature to simply begin fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities. Congress must not merely ask the Administration, but demand answers to critical questions before one more military operation is conducted abroad. For 15 years, U.S. administrations have had a virtual blank check from Congress to do as it saw fit in the exercise of lethal military power. That has to end today. If there are compelling national security threats that require the employment of the military, Members must demand answers from the Administration on several critical questions.

In detail, what is the threat to the U.S.? What diplomatic means have been used to ensure U.S. security and why are further such efforts unlikely to ensure U.S. security? If the employment of the military is necessary, what are the achievable objectives they will be tasked to accomplish? How long might the mission take? How much is it expected to cost? What are the likely second and third order effects in the region if we use lethal military power? What are the potential costs to our security if we do not use the military, and what costs are likely if we do?

Before one U.S. boot is placed on foreign soil (or missile fired from the air), the Administration must give satisfactory answers to each of those questions, and if there is truly a compelling need to use force, Congress must put the matter to a vote and take responsibility for whatever happens after that. Moreover, the American people must also be willing to shoulder the burden and pay the price in both treasure and blood.

If the Administration is not willing (or able) to provide a convincing argument for the employment of the Armed Forces, if members of Congress are not willing to stake their names on the mission, and if the American people are not supportive, then the mission must be aborted. Our foreign policy elites must remain accountable to U.S. citizens.

Since 9/11, none of those things has taken place, and the nation is worse off because of it. The biggest bill-payers for this abdication in responsibility have been the men and women who wear the uniform.

If we really want to show our service members we love and support them today, let’s demand that our government and leaders fulfill their constitutional duties and take responsibility for the consequences. That’s the best way to honor the troops.

Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.


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