Last night, just after sunset, President Obama announced the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom in a brief speech from the Oval Office. It was billed as a momentous occasion for a president elected on a mandate of reform, and it seemed at times during the address that Obama would lose his famous composure. But the president surely knows, as does everyone, that the war he opposed and now commands is not over. Fifty thousand troops and an untold number of private mercenaries will remain in Iraq. Last month 450 Iraqis died from violence. Most were civilians. It's clear to nobody how it will all end.
What's certain, however, is that this country is not ready to support meaningfully the soldiers that return from it. The moral ambivalence that's long surrounded our public discussion of the Iraq war cannot obscure the plain fact that the well over one million young men and women who have served have returned to a jobless, broken economy.
Tens of thousands of vets struggle with measurable physical wounds and most suffer from equally insidious hidden ones. A friend of mine who was in the Navy during the first Gulf War, and who sustained physical injuries that he will carry for his entire life, once told me that he is tormented daily by the things he saw and did. Returning to life as usual was impossible for him after all he'd been through.
A recent report commissioned by the Army finds that suicides are on the rise among soldiers. They are twice as likely to kill themselves as the general population. And suicide rates among veterans are even higher than for soldiers on active duty. A 2007 study estimated that male veterans aged 20 to 24 kill themselves at a rate four times the national average for people the same age.
In last night's speech, Obama promised that returning soldiers will get the care they need. "We are treating the signature wounds of today's wars, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury," he said. But the track record on keeping that promise is not good. According to a report by the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, less than 10 percent of veterans with new PTSD diagnoses receive full treatment.
Meanwhile, those who will reenter the civilian workforce face an historically crowded job market, and not necessarily with the transferable skills that recruitment ads sold them. "Part of the challenge veterans face is that everything isn't equal," sociologist Meredith Kleykamp told CNN. "The kinds of experience they may have attained may not be the kind of experiences that translate into the work world."
The Bureau of Labor Statics reported that last year unemployment for veterans between the ages of 18 to 24 reached 21.6 percent, higher than the unemployment rate of 19 percent for their civilian contemporaries of the same age. Of course, our troops are also more black and brown than the overall civilian population--23 percent of the Army is black, compared to 12 percent of the U.S. population. And black unemployment is already a third higher than the nation overall.
Ironically, the military itself might be the country's only real jobs program at this point, as it puts millions to work each day. As Robert Reich explains, "If we didn't have this giant military jobs program, the U.S. unemployment rate would be over 11.5 percent today instead of 9.5 percent."
"This isn't an argument for more military spending. Just the opposite," writes Reich. "We don't have an overt jobs program based on what's really needed."
Obama pledged relief in the form of a new G.I. Bill for those returning to life here. "[W]e are funding a post-9/11 G.I. Bill that helps our veterans and their families pursue the dream of a college education. Just as the G.I. Bill helped those who fought World War II . . . become the backbone of our middle class, so today's servicemen and women must have the chance to apply their gifts to expand the American economy. Because part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who have fought it."
The promise of education is to be applauded. But at some point we will have to create actual civilian jobs for these newly educated troops--and everyone else--to fill.
We'll also have to stop slashing the support programs for veterans and everybody else struggling through the collapsed economy. Rather than focusing on the true source of our national deficit--like our wars, for instance--Washington, bound by an obstructionist Republican Party, has refused to create a large scale jobs program, cut the food stamp program and threatens to do the same to Social Security.
Yet, we continue to spend on war. As the Iraq mission shrinks, the one in Afghanistan is about to grow more intense. As the president said, "because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense."
At least 1,200 American soldiers have already died in the Afghanistan war, as have countless Afghan civilians and armed fighters. In Iraq, since 2003, 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed. These numbers are tiny compared to the estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died of violence since that war began.
"Our most urgent task," Obama said last night, "is to restore our economy." But with a war and a half still raging, a fraying safety net, and inadequate investment in jobs, the country is a very long way from restoration. Those returning from this war are among the most vulnerable to falling through the economy's gaping cracks. Last night would have felt more hopeful had it been occasion for setting new priorities, rather than rearranging the same misguided ones.