Paying the Costs of War

Neocons and their political allies are often called “chicken hawks” because few have fought in the wars that they’ve advocated, which means America’s chief war proponents have very little concept of the short- and long-term consequences for soldiers, what ex-CIA official Paul R. Pillar describes.

By Paul R. Pillar

A story on NPR brought back some personal memories from nearly four decades ago. The subject of the report — related to the seasonal topic of New Year’s resolutions — was the science of overcoming addictions and other undesirable behaviors.

The piece began by discussing illicit drug use among U.S. troops in the Vietnam War, which was recognized at the time as so serious a problem that it stimulated a larger antidrug effort, with President Richard  Nixon appointing a drug czar and declaring drug abuse to be “public enemy number one in the United States.”

Scene from the Vietnam War

As an army lieutenant during the last year of the war, I helped to run a replacement depot outside Saigon through which nearly all the remaining U.S. troops departed Vietnam. One of the principal parts of the processing was a urinalysis to identify heroin users, who were separated from the other troops and sent to a detoxification center.

The proportion of users was disturbingly high. Nixon’s drug czar, interviewed on the NPR report, said about 40 percent of enlisted men had tried heroin, and of those about half became addicted.

The good news about the drug use among the Vietnam veterans was that after they had been detoxified and returned to the United States, only about five percent of those who were addicted in Vietnam became re-addicted. This was a far lower relapse rate than for people who had acquired their initial drug addictions within the United States.

The principal explanation offered for this finding is that environment and circumstances are all-important. Habitual behaviors are associated for each person with a particular environment or circumstance. For the soldiers who used heroin, that environment was the war in Vietnam.

Once out of that environment, they had a much better chance of kicking the habit for good. So according to the NPR story, if you want, say, to stop smoking, don’t linger in that area in front of your office-building’s entrance where you and others have been accustomed to having a cigarette.

Other afflictions that Vietnam veterans brought home with them were more persistent than the drug abuse. Besides physical wounds, many suffered from what we have come to know as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although similar conditions had certainly been noted with veterans of earlier wars (some who had been in World War II were said to suffer from “shell shock”), recognition of this syndrome as a major effect of the Vietnam War was slow in coming. PTSD was not even defined as a distinct disorder until the 1980s, and it wasn’t until a decade after the war that Congress mandated a comprehensive study of this and other problems among the Vietnam veterans.

The PTSD was persistent. A later survey conducted 14 years later found that the proportion of veterans still suffering symptoms of PTSD had barely changed from the earlier study.

Recognition of lingering problems of veterans, including especially PTSD, fortunately has been earlier and more complete with our most recent wars than it was with the Vietnam War. But the problems are no less serious, and no less chronic and lingering, for being recognized.

Problems both invisible, including the psychological demons, and visible, including lost limbs, are long lasting or permanent and will be part of the legacy of the wars for decades to come.

The medical care and other economic costs entailed by that legacy are large and important in their own right, of course. They also can serve as a metaphor for the broader political and other consequences of our most recent wars. Those consequences include the short-term and the long-term, the visible and the invisible, the expected and the unexpected.

Unexpected consequences of foreign wars are almost always numerous and extensive. They can be either positive or negative, although most of the unexpected results tend to be negative; what is planned for tends to be more what is wished for than what is feared. Anything close to a full balance sheet on the wars will be a long time in coming. People still argue about the balance sheet for the Vietnam War.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared in The National Interest.)

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3 comments on “Paying the Costs of War

  1. Hillary on said:

    The US Military adventures were intended to mark the official emergence of the United States as a full-fledged global empire, seizing sole responsibility and authority as planetary policeman.

    It has been the culmination of a PNAC plan 10 years or more in the making, carried out by those neocons who believe the United States must seize the opportunity for global domination, even if it means becoming the “American imperialists” that our enemies always claimed we were & to dominate the Middle East, including neighboring Iran.

    $4 Trillion borrowed for all this will be paid for by our children & their children’s children.

    • Coleen Rowley on said:

      Yes, John Yoo, main author of the “torture memo” and the Jan 9, 2002 Office of Legal Counsel memo that told George Bush that the U.S. did not need to comply with the Geneva Conventions, is now publishing legal opinions that essentially say the U.S. can and should invade/bomb whichever country it chooses as long as the invasion/bombing can be said to be well-intentioned or “humanitarian” (according to Yoo), it’s OK under international law. Since Yoo was never held accountable for his legalization of torture, his legal theories are still accepted and influential. Yoo and the other neo-cons praise war and war presidencies yet you would never find any of them volunteering to serve in the military.

  2. Coleen Rowley on said:

    Speaking of chicken-hawks, read the story about Mitt Romney’s 3 years of deferments during Vietnam for academic study and then 2 1/2 years’ of deferment based on being a “Mormon Missionary”. http://www.boston.com/news/politics/2008/specials/romney/articles/part1_side_2/?page=full

    Does it make sense that someone who pushes war and now so fervently wants to be “Commander in Chief” to lead the US into war was himself a draft-dodger? I guess there are so many in this category that we shouldn’t pick on Mitt Romney, but…

    Former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman who became one of the main Iraq and Iran war-mongers not only never served but actually was a long-haired hippie who led anti-Vietnam protests while in college.