We are spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development…when the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.
– Martin Luther King
I leaned over to my girlfriend, and conspiratorially – by heart – recited the Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation, under God, indivisible….” Even as I said the words, I was surprised by my own fluency. How could I remember this pledge? The answer was simple: I was a product of the American education system. Thus, I spent every morning of class – Kindergarten through 12th grade – up, at attention, and announcing allegiance to my country of birth, as if it was sensitive to my voice. Without my verbal confirmation of unwavering support, the class and country would look down upon me – not just because I’d be sitting down.
Amidst my puberty, horrible awkwardness with the opposite sex, and raging hormones displaced on parents, America fought wars. I vividly remember biology class in 6th grade, when the loudspeaker croaked alive – class would be cancelled. Then, teachers sobbed and kids went home. My parents hurried as fast as they could – to hug me and check to see if I was alright. Of course I was – this was Pittsburgh, mah! But we couldn’t stop watching the news for weeks. Over and over again, the World Trade Center towers fell.
I had stood atop those towers a year prior. My 12-year-old mind couldn’t compute how some of the tallest buildings in the world became shorter than our house – the great had fallen. I was more concerned and interested with rollerblading, biking, and playing videogames.
Our leader delivered rousing messages of revenge. They would pay. To us nincompoops, “they” was this exceedingly abstract term. Who were “they?” Could you be “they?” Could we be “they?” Then “they” became “terrorists.” The terrorists who would pay.
We were told the terrorists couldn’t accept our way of life. The terrorists couldn’t understand our freedoms. The terrorists couldn’t accept our Westernized culture where women could work, roam, and divorce as they please.
Across the Muslim-majority world, America aggressed. Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Libya, and other sovereign nations felt the boot of U.S. military. We killed, slaughtered, massacred, bombed, shot, and burned. Thousands of service members and “enemy combatants” died. An unknown number of civilians also perished.
When I was 17, I almost enlisted in the U.S. Army. I wanted to be a 17X (“Seventeen x-ray”). This new position short-tracked enlisted folks into a Special Forces career. I idolized their bravery, willpower, and strength. But I backed down after considering what else I could do with my life – at least for the next few years. Nonetheless, I admired every other friend and neighbor that committed to this hard choice.
All these words – written in past tense – belie the reality of my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Sometimes I forget we’re still at war even today. Fifteen years and counting, the War on Terror remains unresolved and unsolved. We cannot completely write these tragedies in history books and say we’ve moved onto a new chapter. We cannot say this will be last combat troop found blown up by an improvised explosive device or dictator that suffers our wrath. We’re not finished yet.
In 2015, the War on Terror was estimated to cost at least $1.7 trillion. No, writing that word – “trillion” – doesn’t do it justice. Let me write out every zero behind it.
The first three zeros are for a great day’s work. The second three zeros give you a lawyers’ salary. The third three zeros will buy you a fleet of Airbus aircraft. The next three zeros give you a greater gross domestic product than countries. And the next digit – the number for trillion – buys you a country or two or three.
This level of wealth could’ve bought us a lot of influence in the world, rebuilt our crumbling infrastructure, provided greater humanitarian relief for refugees, and more. But we didn’t think twice within this representative democracy to vote in representatives who would vote in favor of war repeatedly. Those votes were easy in comparison to providing safe bridges, smooth roads, clean water, affordable education, universal healthcare, and/or subsidizing clean energy. The initiatives that would’ve directly impacted our lives for the better – those were the partisan battles of my adolescence. And even if we enacted all those plans, we would still have money leftover to feed the impoverished, house the homeless, and have a roaring economy.
We chose war.
This choice cost us every year as taxpayers, too. About 18-20% of the federal budget goes towards “National Defense” spending. For every dollar, we burn 20% with the goal of keeping us safe. If I snatched away one-fifth of every paycheck from you, wouldn’t you do something about it? Would you let me siphon off your hard-earned dollars?
But I don’t hate all taxes. In fact, I love them! They pay for libraries, fire and police departments, National Guard troops, family members’ disability payments, and Medicare. They provide for those in need; albeit, they could do better. They provide grants and funding for disadvantaged populations to go to college; albeit, they could do better. They provide unemployment support if we lose our jobs suddenly; albeit, they could do better.
We’ve spent 15 years punishing the Muslim-majority countries without resolution. If bloodshed is not enough, are we not sick of war’s economic costs for those at home and abroad? Are we not tired of losing one-fifth of our work? Are we not tired of our worldwide reputation of war before diplomacy?
Years passed where I dreamt of serving my leaders. I wanted to take care of soldiers in combat as a psychologist. I used to take great pride in our flag, to stand with allegiance, and be a good citizen. I loved when I unwrapped my U.S. passport for the first time to flip through the pages of history and read our proud declarations of freedom. But I’ve been changed by a war more than half my life.