Dear Heroes…You Deserve the Greatest Salute

By Robert Cohen

To the men and women of the United States Armed Forces: Last week’s pullout from Iraqi cities provides an exhilarating testament to your heroism.  That you have succeeded in transforming Iraq from a hopeless quagmire into a self-sustaining democracy is indisputably one of history’s great triumphs.

To the rest of America: The time is long overdue for us to step up and carry our share of the burden.

Last week marked three momentous developments in America’s military engagements since 9/11: The pullout of American troops from Iraqi cities; the undertaking of a major operation in southern Afghanistan; and the kidnapping of an American soldier by the Taliban.  Each illuminates a key aspect of our struggle. The success in Iraq confirms that America still has the power to do great. The beginning of a “Surge” in Afghanistan reminds us that our struggle against forces who would undermine our civilization is far from over.  The kidnapping of an American soldier by Al-Qaeda—and the thought of what he is about to endure—illuminates the fact that a disproportionate share of this struggle has been borne by the subset of America who volunteer to serve.

Everyone knows that over 4,500 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Less commonly noted are the 30,000 seriously wounded, or the 100,000 who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has so far led an additional 3,000 young veterans to commit suicide.

Yet at home there exists an unsettling tacit consensus that this is a fight for which only a few need to sacrifice.  After nearly eight years watching our troops serve multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now witnessing Iran and North Korea test our response to aggression while our forces are spread thin, still less than one percent of America volunteers to serve in the military.  A vast segment of the homebound young generation instead lives in a pseudoutopia of substance-laden indulgence within our borders. Every weekend sees our cities’ bars packed with wealthy young adults binge drinking. Insulated from the wars by two oceans and relative wealth, we are letting alcohol and marijuana subvert service and sacrifice as our response to far-off adversity.  We self-medicate to obfuscate the challenges of our time, we choose bars over the battlefield, and thereby quietly permit threats to life and limb to fall on an overtaxed few, even as they grow. Most disturbingly, pervasive within this culture is an attitude that it is precisely the freedom exhibited by the bar-goers that our soldiers have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq to defend. Too many of us seem sadly unaware of the idea that our patriotic troops might not be risking their lives so we can squander ours.

Any young American will vigorously assert that he or she supports the troops.  But if Afghanistan is truly going to be “the longest campaign of the long war,” as General David Petraeus says, it is time our actions changed.  Next time we are due to “go out” and each spend $30-100 with our friends on alcohol, let us instead stay home, donate the money we would have spent to a charity which takes care of wounded veterans, and acquaint ourselves with the battles our compatriots are waging overseas.

If we take the time to reflect, we undoubtedly will be humbled and awe-struck by the sacrifices our soldiers have made during the last eight years, and which they are poised to make during the next decade.  When that happens, let us offer them the most sincere form of flattery—imitation—and commit our next decade to a cause greater than ourselves. It need not be in the military, for there are many ways to serve, but let us honor them by acting in their spirit.

The magnitude of our challenges is the volume with which history calls us.  Young people of America: Wake up and serve.

Robert Cohen, M.D., is a U.S. Army veteran who works as a physician on projects in Africa and Asia. His book, “Boom without Bust: How Humans Can Solve Slow-Motion Emergencies and Build a Type-I Civilization,” will be published in 2019.