III. Paying War’s Price

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Andy Cross / Denver Post via Getty Images

Marines listen to final orders from their commander just before entering Iraq on March 20, 2003.

 Part 3 of 3

America will soon be at peace.

The long, silent wars of Iraq, launched a decade ago this week, and Afghanistan have already begun their transition from the mainstream media to the history books. Domestic and foreign pressures will quickly sweep away the last of our interest in these curious fights, replacing them with the more manageable problems of deficits, jobs, nukes, and immigrants.

We will likely fail to learn from our experiences there, condemning another generation to spending treasure and spilling blood without full consideration of the consequences.

Viewed from the United States, the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan bears little resemblance to a real war.

We have to sacrifice for wars. Wars are serious, they test our mettle. They have enemies of near-equal or even greater strength who provide yet another opportunity for America to surge forward in defense of her ideals. Wars are noticeable, they are felt.

Whatever Iraq was and Afghanistan is, they just don’t feel like wars.

Our stubborn model of a knock-down drag-out war—with China, for instance—is a remote possibility. Much more likely are the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Mali. These low-level conflicts burn controllably now, but hint at greater dangers for which America must be prepared. My friends who are still serving speak only of ambiguous missions in countries that don’t merit a front-page blurb.

These complex operations defy easy categorization and seem to be happening everywhere at once. Apparently our government’s de facto response is to let the overstretched military and underfunded State Department deal with problems, and keep America in the loop if anything tragic and unpredictable happens.

The price of this vigilance is being born by fewer and fewer Americans, and matters less and less to our leaders. Tear aside the rhetorical veil and you will find little of consequence beyond a flag-shaped lapel pin and a stack of IOUs.

There is nothing substantial being done to connect citizens and their elected representatives to the herculean tasks asked of our military. Instead the government burns through its creditors’ money while the people clamor for relief.

We have forgotten the fight.

Change is not only inevitable, it is necessary.

We can make a simple group of adjustments to American defense policy and save ourselves from the lie of perennial bloodless conflict. Three groups—politicians, industry, and the American public—drive decisions about war in our nation. They must each be addressed to ensure appropriate incentives during the deliberations that chart our course.

First, politicians.

Our national leadership sits atop a bureaucracy millions-strong. These federal personnel must share in the added burdens placed upon troops when America is at war. During such trials, then, everyone in the national government except for military and intelligence personnel should have their salaries frozen, except for adjustments for inflation. With such a limit in place, the leaders of this country will have to justify the state of war on a recurring basis, even in the isolated corridors of Washington, D.C.

We must also address the industry leaders who support national defense.

This is a crucial business; their success should be understood as the result of properly supporting America’s needs, not stigmatized as war profiteering. Like everyone else, they are mostly responsible citizens, but a war-footing undeniably alters military procurement. It involves the simultaneous expansion of business and loosening of oversight. To counteract these trends, all war-time procurement contracts should zero-out profit margins, instead providing military equipment at cost. This would give the military for bang for its buck while keeping industry focused on a quick return to the higher margins of peacetime.

The final group is us—American citizens.

Since operations began in Afghanistan in late 2001, our taxes have actually decreased. This is a disgusting trend, no matter how much macroeconomic logic provides us with convenient justifications. We should pay more, and we should connect this added burden to the collective decision for which we all share responsibility. Whenever America send its boys and girls into harm’s way, federal income tax must be raised automatically across-the-board by 5% and be listed in all federal documentation as a War Tax.

When some of us fight, we all pay.

The question remaining is when to trigger this self-imposed sacrifice. That is where budgeting comes into play. However combat operations are sold to the public, they must be added to the base defense budget. The proposed policy should be enacted so it automatically comes into effect during fiscal years when the contingency funding—that is, paying for the extra burdens we place on our military—eclipses 5% of its base budget.

This year, that would mean all extra spending could not top $33 billion. We are, in fact, spending over $120 billion.

At present, America has set a terrifying precedent for the future. There are de facto incentives for politicians, industry, and voters to leverage, lobby for, and ignore war, respectively.

Without a juggernaut emerging to challenge the nation at a peer level, Americans will be stuck with small, complex, forgettable hot spots as a loose proxy for war. This global vigilance is leading us down an unsustainable path of strategic ambiguity and civic disengagement. A policy similar to the one described above will purposefully distribute much-needed pain among all Americans, not just a patriotic few.

We should never lionize the wars of the past, or the sacrifices they required.

The 21st century world order is blessed with relative tranquility and safety thanks to its flawed leader, the United States of America.

The price of our national vigilance has been born voluntarily by a select few, but their superhuman efforts are not the model for a sustainable peace. Americans must rise to the challenge of sharing the burdens of war in a thoughtful way. Without this solidarity we will bleed dry the best of us, then crumble under the weight of resurgent violence and fear.

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.