II. War By Any Other Name

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Marines pray as they prepare to invade Iraq.

 Part 2 of 3

Once upon a time — like 10 years ago today, when we invaded Iraq — Americans knew when they were fighting a war. This may be hard to imagine from the vantage point of 2013, but citizens in long-ago conflicts felt the impacts of the decision to deploy lots of troops for long periods of time at great cost.

We were at war.

It was a state at which we had arrived.

That is, America was in a national condition marked by unusual degrees of internal cohesion, patriotic fervor, and collective sacrifice.

This condition was never evenly felt across the geographic and socioeconomic landscape, to be sure, but most American people lived different lives than during times of peace.

There was a tense expectancy surrounding the families of our uniformed boys and girls, a waiting game marked by this illogical symphony of pride, anger, love, and fear. There were things we couldn’t buy because they were needed at the front. There was household money saved to purchase bonds to provide funding for the government to continue because it was a necessary war. These were all terrible threads weaving together our nation.

Threads of sacrifice, born of war.

America is no longer woven together. Our wars, however lengthy and costly to a few, are not like the great wars of the past. There is loss and anguish and love and pain, even bittersweet triumph at times, but these no longer define the national consciousness. There were glimpses of such cohesion immediately after 9/11, but they quickly faded. We huddled together—united in our grief—and dispatched our special forces to make quick work of our foes. Sorrow and anger morphed into pride as America’s irresistible power left the stewards of al Qaeda broken and scattered. Cohesion and patriotism emerged quickly; as a nation, we intuitively knew this path. Although I had already enlisted in the Marines, I saw an overwhelming response in the months that followed, as volunteers swelled our ranks. Waiting behind those had answered the call were many more who asked for the opportunity to serve America on the homefront.

But sacrifice never followed.

Somehow we didn’t arrive at war after 9/11. We avoided the arduous task of drawing from every corner of society. We were unable to (or uninterested in) marshaling the national will to place demands on ourselves.

After all, we had an alternative that had emerged in the years since Vietnam. Why go to war when the military can conduct “combat operations”? It basically does the same thing—sends boys and girls to far-off lands at great cost and danger—without requiring the messy congressional deliberations and universal costs. Taxes don’t need to be raised, nothing has to be rationed, and almost all of our boys and girls can go onto jobs or college instead of swelling the military’s ranks.

So we birthed something new, named it the Global War On Terror, and sent our standing military to fight it.

Now Americans could safely return to their normal lives with full confidence in eventual justice to those who had wronged us. We had a thing to which we could point—external to our lives—serving as the focal point for all things related to war’s murky horror.

This worked well for everyone: citizens were able to return to normalcy; the government exploded in spending and size; and industry nestled in close to its federal nursemaid, growing fat off credit-fueled spending. Fighting terror turned out to be a lot easier than everyone originally thought.

Strategic missteps and economic meltdown rocked the boat, however.

George W. Bush was given the twin black eyes of costly military failures and an economy bludgeoned by housing and financial crises. Barack Obama replaced him in the ring, and promptly changed the name of our military Frankenstein from Global War On Terror to Overseas Contingency Operations, but little else.

Neither its scope nor function were changed; America still had her free wars. Now more than a decade old, the “OCO” budget stubbornly resists all fiscal pressures, claiming over $120 billion of borrowed money on top of the $600 billion-plus base budget for the Defense Department.

This is where we stand today.

War is no longer the terrible, destructive, necessary evil to be pursued as a last resort when confronting dire national-security threats. It has been shrunk down and de-clawed, collapsing into the surgical cleanliness of the combat operation.

War hides in a corner of the national budget, hoping to avoid too much scrutiny. America doesn’t need to know much about it, only trust it’s being conducted honorably, and the unfortunate victims of its violence are cared for in a fiscally responsible fashion.

This is a national tragedy, and must be addressed before it becomes our model for addressing future threats.

Part 1: Wars Without Suffering

Part 2: War by Any Other Name

Part 3: Paying War’s Price

William Treseder served as a Marine sergeant from 2001 to 2011, deploying to Iraq in 2008, and to Afghanistan in 2010-11. He now works for a defense technology firm in San Francisco, and can be reached at william.treseder@gmail.com.