It’s not like it used to be.
As a nation, we used to take wars more personally. More emotionally. When our men and women were out there fighting, it was on our collective minds all the time.
Look at old newspaper clippings from World War I or World War II or Korea. We had ownership over those wars. When the military needed metal for tanks or guns or ammunition, the whole community pitched in and gathered scraps into big heaps in the middle of the town square. And when a soldier died, the whole community died a little with him.
Even during Vietnam, one of our nation’s most unpopular wars, the pickets and the protests were a sign that it was affecting us all.
But it really hasn’t been that way for a while. Sure, a lot of us stop for a second or two on Memorial Day or Veterans Day. But for most, it’s just a day off from work or school. War is nostalgia and history, not part of our day-to-day existence.
Today, our soldiers seem to go off to war, and we go back to whatever it was we were doing. They become pixels on the TV screen and numbers on a casualty list on the second page of a newspaper story. Unless we know them or their families personally, they’re just strangers to us.
The Civil War, World War I and World War II each lasted four years; Korea lasted three. Our combat role in Vietnam lasted eight years, as did the Revolutionary War. But we’ve been fighting this war in Afghanistan and Iraq for 13, during which more than 6,700 American soldiers have been killed.
Maybe we’re battle-fatigued, although it’s hard to remember when we got worked up enough to get tired. Maybe as a society we’ve become too self-absorbed to get too invested. Maybe the end of the military draft in 1973 took the daily threat of losing a child to war away from middle-class families, thereby taking away our concern. Maybe we’ve been inundated with so much information through TV and the Internet that we just can’t process it all, so we tune out the bad stuff. Maybe we’ve become so distrusting and divisive and ignorant of other cultures since 9/11 that we just don’t give a damn about what happens over there, even when our own people are in the middle of it.
If Israeli bombs weren’t killing schoolchildren in Gaza, would we even be paying attention to what’s going on there now? Another war, another cease-fire, more unheeded calls for peace in the Middle East. Sadat, Begin and Carter smiling and clasping hands was 36 years and six presidencies ago. Does it ever end?
But sometimes, we’re shaken into reality. Sometimes, we see an image on the screen that we can’t ignore, that reminds us that war is more than someone else’s problem.
Major General Harold J. Greene, an Albany native and RPI grad with family roots in Guilderland, was shot and killed in Afghanistan Tuesday while helping prepare Afghan forces to protect their country after the U.S. leaves later this year.
The photo is of a husband and father, described by friends and family as kind and generous, a man — said a friend apologizing for the cliche — who would give you the shirt off his back.
Looking at that photo of someone so accomplished and so dedicated, it seems cruel that he should be taken in the prime of his life. It’s no less cruel when others are lost, many even younger and with so much more ahead of them.
This is war, folks. It’s not numbers. It’s not uniforms . It’s not bloviating politicians.
The more often we remember that, the more likely we are to feel a connection to it — and maybe do something about it.