Mosaic Community Essays

"On bearing witness to the costs of the post-9/11 wars, 20 years in"

Twenty years. 929,000 killed. Eight trillion dollars. That’s a conservative estimate of the costs of America’s forever war on terror. When Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I helped found 10 years ago, released these figures earlier this month, I was standing in my Maryland kitchen with my husband, a Naval officer. He has not fought in combat zones, but he has weathered the costs of these wars through the relentless pace of trainings and deployments, war traumatized and abusive commanding officers, and more recently, an increasingly autocratic and sick homeland deprived of the resources it needs to heal. I said to my spouse that night, “I wish I hadn’t left”- referring to the management job at Costs of War, which I’d quit to pursue a career as a therapist counseling veterans and other war-affected populations. Now I felt out of the loop, like I needed to take a more active role in what had become a powerful advocacy project.  

My husband turned to me and said, “I bet lots of vets are saying they wish they could go back, too,” referring to our hasty Afghanistan pullout. 

I thought about the network of US veterans sitting in the blue light of their computer screens and on their cell phones, using intelligence tips to help guide their Afghan counterparts – interpreters, fixers, fellow soldiers – to safety. I also thought, somewhat incongruently, about the June evening in 2011 when Costs of War co-founder Catherine Lutz and I stood with Brown University public relations staff behind a computer screen as we launched the project’s first report. After so many months staring at images of bombed out buildings, bloodied Iraqi children, Afghan refugees living in squalor, soldiers with severed limbs and distant looks in their eyes, we felt desperate for the country to start paying closer attention. In an argument I’d had with my husband leading up to that night, about the respective merits of fighting war versus documenting its costs, he had said, in an attempt at a jab – “But it’s just a website.” We at Costs of War of course had something bigger in mind.  

In the years since that initial launch of the project, as our counter-terrorism operations grew to span dozens of countries around the world, and as my spouse and I learned to accept the contradictions in our military and activist careers, he and I have managed to agree on one thing: what matters less than what your role is that you are paying attention to the broader impacts of armed conflict. After all, it is we, the broader voting public, who choose the leaders who wage battles or not. Yet only some parties to the conflict, like soldiers, veterans, their families, and more than anyone perhaps, civilians in the war zones, have no choice but to experience what war does.

What I hope Americans remember is this: boots on the ground in Afghanistan or not, America’s war on terror goes on. As Yale history professor Samuel Moyn noted in his recent New York Times op-ed, this war has both expanded around the globe and grown more difficult to see.

As Moyn argued, these discourses of precise and humane war made it more likely that we would accept war’s indefinite continuation. He writes, “it is easier not to mistreat prisoners if you no longer capture them.” 

We are killing them instead. Civilians included.  Only this time, we don’t even need to look them in the eye. (Though skyrocketing suicide rates among U.S. troops, most severely amongst those who have never deployed to a war zone or deployed only once, suggest that seeing the enemy may not matter so much – that there could be a cost in blood to engaging in war from afar.)

My best way to stay connected to the costs of this war is to ensure as many people as possible do not see war simplistically as just an honorable pursuit, that they do not think only of flag draped coffins and tearful reunions amongst returning soldiers and their families; that they don’t just thank soldiers for their service and so distance themselves from their daily experiences. 

Nor should we cover our kids’ eyes and ears when the topic of armed violence arises. We Americans need to remind ourselves that regardless of political persuasion or distance separating us from the war zones, the families and communities of some million people already killed by our 21st-century wars have no choice but to bear witness. We should join them.

—Andrea Mazzarino
Patrick May
Susan Johnston

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