Most of the testimony on defense spending yesterday at the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing in D.C. focused on Barack Obama's planned 2012 Afghanistan drawdown, particularly the timing and politics of ending a war we can't win. For some, withdrawal can't come too soon; for others, such as the Pentagon, extension of surge forces is the first order. But as Sen. Patty Murray is always willing to ask, is anyone budgeting for the human costs?
As the Seattle Democrat said (video) to Defense Sec. Robert Gates, who retires in two weeks when he decamps for his home in Skagit County, "I think you know, the major components of this long-term war include the fact that deaths from suicide among veterans and service members from this war are on par with combat deaths, many of our warriors are facing difficult challenges accessing needed mental-health care when they return home, and that many of the service members serving in Afghanistan today are on their third, fourth, or even fifth tours."
So, continued the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, "while we have talked a great deal about costs in terms of rebuilding projects, Afghan aid, and military resources--I wanted to ask you today what you--and the Pentagon--consider to be the biggest costs of this war to our wounded warriors and their families--particularly those costs that we will be paying for for a very long time, and whether that is ever considered or factored in when you're making decisions about drawing down in Afghanistan?"
Gates seemed unprepared for the question. He's worked to protect wounded-warrior program funds, he said. Still, "I cannot say that decisions in terms of drawdowns or military strategy are made bearing in mind the costs of the soldiers, and the sailors, airmen, and the marines who suffer." That's "the nature of war," he said, although he is more mindful, "more conservative, more cautious, about when we use force because I've seen the consequences up front."
Kudos to Murray for her turd-in-the-punchbowl question. She's been a champion of the disabled troops and veterans who remind us that wars truly never end. The "too-often-unseen human cost" of going to battle should be "part of our decision in any long-term conflict," she notes, a reality she rarely hesitates to drop into any political discussion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the coming days, the AP reports, Obama will confer with Gates and other officials to decide how many of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn in the initial round of reductions. Gates said the Pentagon doesn't see wars as unending. "I know people are frustrated. The country has been at war for 10 years. I know people are tired," he said. But "People also have to think in terms of stability and in terms of the potential of [al-Qaida] reconstitution. What's the cost of failure?"
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seemed more attuned to the price of casualties--particularly brain injuries and post-traumatic stress--when questioned by Murray. "These costs are longstanding," he said. "We don't understand them as well as we should."
He was referring, indirectly, to cases such as that of Spc. Brandon Barrett, the Fort Lewis solider who was apparently planning a public massacre in Salt Lake City before he was killed by a police officer. "There are time bombs set up that we know are out there," Mullen said. "We just don't know when they're going to go off."