Op-Ed: Burdens Of War Unevenly Shared In U.S.

NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel perceives a lack of shared sacrifice when it comes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The combined cost of the two wars on American taxpayers is close to a trillion dollars, and the human toll has been significant.

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TONY COX, host:

And now for the Opinion Page.

As the United States begins to draw down its troop levels in Iraq and build up its operations in Afghanistan, the combined cost of these two wars on American taxpayers is close to a trillion dollars. The human toll is growing. More than 4,000 U.S. service members have died in the Iraq war, more than 1,000 in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. At the same time, the federal deficit has ballooned during these two conflicts and is likely to be felt by generations to come. It is a heavy price to pay, but NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel says these wartime sacrifices need to be shared by more of Americans. He'll be here to explain in a moment.

But we also want to hear your view. Are we sacrificing enough for the war? Should we be doing more? If so, what? What sacrifices are you willing to make to support the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ted Koppel, joining us now from his home in Potomac, Maryland. Ted, nice to have you back again.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Tony. Always nice to be with you.

COX: I'm anticipating a very interesting conversation with you today, and some callers that I'm sure will come in and offer their opinion. But let's begin with this: what is it that is unique, Ted, about these two wars, in your view, in the way Americans are paying the price?

KOPPEL: Well, first of all, in your introduction, Tony, you suggested that we were already all making a sacrifice in paying for these wars. And I would suggest to you that we're paying for them essentially the way we pay for our houses and our cars. We're putting off the real payment. We're putting it on a, either on a mortgage on a credit card. This is the first time in the history of the United States that neither war, neither the Iraq war nor the Afghanistan war, has been underwritten by a special tax for the war. All wars previously have had special taxes.

President Bush didn't raise any additional taxes. President Obama hasn't raised any additional taxes. Essentially, the more than $1 trillion that we have spent on these two wars thus far is money that we have borrowed principally from the Chinese, the Japanese and countries out in the Persian Gulf.

COX: So what exactly would you like to see? Is it a war tax, where people are paying for this, or is it something beyond just that?

KOPPEL: Let me put it this way, Tony. I do not think that any nation should go to war simply on the backs of a few hundred thousand men and women and their families. When a nation goes to war, it needs to be as an entity. And by and large, 90 to 95 percent of the American public, probably more than that if you look at the real numbers, are paying absolutely nothing for this war. We are not paying anything additionally in money. We are not paying anything in terms of personal sacrifice. The young men and women who are over there fighting the war, they are. They're paying. Their families are paying. Their loved ones are paying. They are paying in terms of having to fight a war over and over and over again. They thought when they volunteered - many of them - that they might have to go under a war zone once or twice. So many of these young men and women have had to go back three times, four times, five times.

And, you know, frankly, we're not paying for the war financially. We're not paying for the war in terms of a draft so that there is an equitable number of young men and women who are going over from all branches of society. We're not paying for it in terms of personal sacrifice. We're not paying for it in terms of rationing. We are giving up essentially nothing to fight the war.

Now, one more thing, Tony, and then I'll stop babbling on and give you a chance to actually ask a question or two. My point here is not to get into a debate with anyone as to whether we should be in these wars in the first place. I am simply saying that if and when the United States goes to war, it has to do so with the backing of and the support of - and support is not just a verbal thing. It's not a rhetorical device. Support means giving something up, giving, you know, getting a little skin on the game.

COX: Now, would you say and I know you just made it very clear, you don't want to get into a debate about the pros and cons of the war, nor do I. But if a person wanted to or if the country began to support the war in the ways that you are suggesting, financially and otherwise, would that not put them then in a position of supporting what is to date still an unpopular war?

KOPPEL: Let me put it this way, Tony. If, in fact, we are going to do what the Constitution calls for, which is to have a declaration of war by the representatives of the people, by the Congress, that's all well and good. We've gotten out of the habit of doing that. You know, I think, World War II was probably the last time that Congress actually voted on whether or not to go to war. So it becomes exceptionally difficult to gauge in any way, even by the measure of whether our representatives in Congress have voted for or against it, whether we are behind the war or not.

The reality is, however, we are engaged in two wars. And just parenthetically, anyone who thinks that we are really out of Iraq in terms of war-fighting really isn't paying very close attention. We'll still have 50,000 troops over there and they will still be engaged in different forms of combat.

COX: As I told you, Ted Koppel, people are beginning to respond to the comments that they are hearing from you today. Here's one. This comes from Maxwell(ph). Maxwell says, how about a war tax of $1,000 per year for everyone, except for families of armed service members? What do you think of that?

KOPPEL: Well, you know, I don't know what the economics of that would be, but it's sort of getting into the spirit of it. My point is, when you talk about, if we were to support a tax, for example, for the war, wouldn't we - thereby being lending - wouldn't we, in effect, be expressing our opinion on the war and saying, I'm in favor of the war? The point, Tony, is our children, our grandchildren are going to be paying for this war anyway. What bothers me about it is that we, the people who are living in this time and place, in whose name or in whose names these wars are being fought, we are not paying for it.

When the Chinese finally come back to us with their Treasury bills that they have been buying from us to the tune of $1 trillion, and they say, we'd like our money back, who's going to be paying for that? Our kids are going to be paying for it. Our grandchildren are going to be paying for it. Americans will pay for these wars eventually. I'm simply saying we're not paying for them now.

COX: Here is a caller that we'll go to. This is Lynn(ph) from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Lynn, welcome. You're on to TALK OF THE NATION with Tony Cox and Ted Koppel.

LYNN (Caller): Hi. Thank you. I'll make it real brief. Ted, I agree with you completely. I was drafted in 1968, went to Vietnam. And strangely enough, I think one of the best things we could do is bring back the draft. It makes it more equitable. I doubt that we would have been in Iraq if there had been a draft, and if, you know, the children of influential, the more well-to-do people, had, you know, faced the prospect of their sons going. The other problem that I have right now is Blackwater and all of these other, you know, basically, mercenaries. How are they perceived? Are they perceived as American military? So those are my comments.

COX: Thank you, Lynn, for that. What about that, Ted?

KOPPEL: Excellent points, both of them. I would simply say, in response to the first point, that the children of the well-to-do, the children of the influential I mean, I'm a child of that era too, and I was just a little bit too old and I was married and had two children by the time I might have been drafted to go to Vietnam. But the fact of the matter is that those of us who had the wherewithal - I was in school. I was in college. I was in graduate school. Then, when I came out of graduate school, I got married and I had a child. So I was always deferred, deferred, deferred, and I never had to go. Now, I ended up spending three and half years in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but as a journalist, not as so soldier. So that's my first answer.

The second answer with response to the Blackwater types, what the gentleman refers to as the mercenaries, he's absolutely right. It is another way that our politicians have found of pretending that there is no pain involved in fighting a war. One of the great difficulties that we confront today is that we have a military that is really too small and inadequate to do all the tasks that we require of them. And so we are hiring I don't know what the precise number is.

I know about a year ago that when you looked at all the civilians who were being hired to fulfill tasks that ranged from the protection of the ambassador and senior embassy officials, to doing laundry and driving trucks, you had more of those people who were hired in Iraq than you actually had troops over there. At a time when we still had 100,000 troops over there, we had about 120 to 150,000 civilian contractors who were working at prices far higher than would have been paid, let's say, to the military doing the same jobs.

COX: Do you think - as we've talked about the draft - do you think that the country would accept a draft again?

KOPPEL: Well, I think it would be political suicide to propose it. All I'm saying right now is - and since I'm not running for office, I can and even am inclined to propose it at least as a theoretical response to what I think is unacceptable.

What is unacceptable is a nation that goes to war without the engagement of its population, either the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan, are in the U.S. national interest, in which case, A, we have to fight those wars, and, B, we, the population of the United States - the voters, the citizens - have to support that, not just support it with our votes, but support it with our monies, support it with sacrifice that we are prepared to make.

I was born and grew up in England during the Second World War - and you and I were talking about this earlier, Tony. At that time, we have severe rationing in England. Rationing is one way that you make materiel, different foods, available for the troops who need them. And the civilian population shares in the burden of supporting the troops. It's a tiny way of doing it, but we're not doing anything.

I mean, think of a single sacrifice that we, as citizens, who do not have children or relatives in Iraq and Afghanistan, what sacrifice are we making? My argument is: none. And it has to be something.

COX: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Ted, we have a person who sent two comments in. And I'm going to read them to you and let you respond to them. This comes from Richard(ph) in New York. He says: First of all, we have sacrificed too much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is time to bring the troops home and close our military bases around the globe. And he follows that with this: We need to fix this country before we can consider trying to fix the world.

That's his comment.

KOPPEL: Well, Richard is trying to get me into the debate that I said I didn't want to get in to. The issue is not whether we should or should not be in Iraq or Afghanistan - we are there. But when he says we have sacrificed too much blood and treasure, was it?

COX: Yes, we.

KOPPEL: We. We haven't sacrificed. I haven't sacrificed any blood. I haven't sacrificed any treasure. My taxes are the same now as they were before the war began. My taxes have not increased. I rather doubt that Richard's have. None of us is paying more in taxes today for a specific war tax than we were paying before. And when he says we are sacrificing blood, that's precisely my point -we aren't. The young men and women who are over there are, and by extension their families are. The rest of us are sacrificing nothing.

COX: Why is it, in your opinion - your considered opinion, Ted Koppel, that this hasn't become a major issue on Capitol Hill with regard to ballooning the deficit which the war clearly is doing?

KOPPEL: Well, it is an awful lot of easier to borrow the money from the Chinese and defer the payment than it is, you know, I mean, imagine here we are coming into the political season again. We have elections coming up. How many congressmen out there do you think are going to come out and say, yeah, I was listening to Ted on NPR the other day. I think he has a terrific idea. I'm going to propose raising taxes so that we can underwrite the cost of these wars.

Almost by definition, that man or woman would be elected out of office. It is politically so unpopular to suggest any additional taxes. But that is a state of mind. And that's really, Tony, what I'm arguing right now, that the American state of mind these days is so self-indulgent, is so self-oriented, is so concerned about doing, you know, I'm all right, Jack, as the British used to say. Everything is okay with me. I'm not going to worry about what's happening to those kids over there. I'm not going to worry about where the money is coming from. Maybe my grandkids will pay for it. You know, where will I be by then?

COX: We have time for one last email before we have to say good-bye. Here it is. As a 26-year combat veteran, it is my experience that most Americans are not touched by this war or the sacrifices made by our men and women who are serving. I routinely run in to people who don't know anyone that serves or have served. If we brought back the draft, Congress, the Senate and many others would become more actively involved, if only to try to get deferrals for their sons. That's the point that you are making, wasn't it?

KOPPEL: It is the point that I'm making. And while I realize that it may be politically unfeasible if not impossible to bring the draft back, I simply believe that we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the nation at large to consider where we are, where we're going. As the one caller suggested, we have hundreds of thousands of he called them mercenaries. He's not far wrong. Why should I, as a volunteer in the military do for $30,000 a year what some private company will pay me 75 or $100,000 a year to do?

In the long run, it's going to be bad for the military. In the long run, it's bad for the country.

COX: NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel, joining us from his home in Potomac, Maryland. As always, Ted, it's wonderful to talk with you.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Tony. Enjoyed it.

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

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