The Army Deserves Better Than Afghanistan--and Fort Hood

Don't stress the Army any more.

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By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Let's get real about the Army and Afghanistan. Now's not the season to study more war.

Let me count the ways, saving the Fort Hood tragedy for last.

Clearly, the Army has suffered enough in the Iraq War—so has the nation and the world since 2003. The president of peace, Barack Obama, has a historic opening to close out two conflicts started by the bellicose George W. Bush. The 43rd president's fingerprints are all over these scenes; let him own the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nor is this a matter of sending 35,000 or 40,000 troops to take care of the problems in Afghanistan. Guess what: All those troops mean another 10 years on the ground (at least). Those troops cost more money and resources than our distressed economy can afford right now. We have lost so many lives—more than 5,000—in these cruel winters of war.

Common sense tells us there is no reason to believe the Army can bring "civil society" and good clean government to Afghanistan. That is not going to happen. Civil society is like a rambling English garden that grows over the years. The seeds of society are planted by those who live with its institutions—just as gardens are planted by people who live on the ground, the soil where they grow. The word many like to use is "stakeholders."

No offense to the Army, but that's not what it is supposed to do. The Army first showed how little it understands social infrastructure when it let Iraq's priceless antiquities get looted on our watch.

Soldiers are warriors, not trained to run schools or libraries or museums or elections, all things that go under the umbrella of civil society. If any part of the United States government should be doing that in Afghanistan, it's the State Department. But tribal Afghanistan is such a civil shambles that it's hard to see how outsiders can invent or impose ways to make it functional.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain is frankly skeptical that the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is a trustworthy partner in our shared goal of bringing Afghanistan into the community of nations. Speaking last week, he said: "I am not prepared to put the lives of British men and women in harm's way for a government that does not stand up against corruption."

Oppressive, mountainous Afghanistan is hostile terrain. Let a thousand flowers bloom there—but be prepared for a field of poppies. The time to act was ages ago, when the Taliban did disastrous things, like putting half the population, women and girls, under a kind of house arrest. A whole generation of women say they are "blind," meaning they are illiterate. Instead of trying to change the men, let's rescue the women and children of Afghanistan. How 'bout that?

Now we come to the nightmarish Fort Hood, Texas shootings, a "kick in the gut" to the Army, said Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., the Army chief of staff. Yes, and a kick in the gut to America at a crossroads. As the president weighs what to do next in Afghanistan, the 13 dead in a shooting spree apparently committed by an American-born Muslim officer may come as a kind of writing on the wall. Two long wars are driving the Army to a breaking point, where they are running on reserves and repeated deployments. The Army has borne the brunt of the sacrifice. Time to ask, is it worth it, after all?

Senseless as the scene was, it was not the first time a soldier turned a gun on his own this year. Last spring, at Camp Liberty in Iraq, an Army sergeant sprayed bullets all around him, shooting five fellow soldiers fatally. This happened in the Combat Stress Control Center on May 11. The shooter, John M. Russell, came close to being arrested, according to the Army Times. He was serving his third deployment—practically a prescription for post-traumatic stress disorder. In another trend, suicides are up among soldiers. In a dark irony, Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, was a military psychiatrist scheduled to be deployed to treat mental health illnesses of soldiers overseas.

They call it an all-volunteer Army. However, soldiers are paid and trained to do or die for us—and we may be asking too much. They can't say no thanks to a third tour. But we as a nation can say the Army deserves better than Afghanistan.

Don't go there.

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