The Letter That Changed a Congressman’s Mind

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s hard to explain to high school kids today, but there was a time when teenagers were conscripted — against their wills — into military service and sent halfway around the world into live-fire combat zones that make Afghanistan look like a training exercise.

I faced that prospect. Reports of full-on battles in jungle terrain against trained, regimental-strength troops have a way of focusing the mind. My friends and I discussed in earnest whether we would take our chances on getting drafted, go ahead and enlist, or flee to Canada. Many of us were saved from those choices – to say nothing of death – by a new military doctrine in the Vietnam War. They called it de-escalation.

It wasn’t actually a military doctrine, but a political necessity. Millions of patriotic middle-class Americans decided they did not want their sons drafted and killed for a cause that had little to do with their security, and politicians listened.

It’s rather appalling that the Bush Administration and the American public believed they could wage a similar war in Afghanistan on the cheap, without the political cost. The Obama Administration, too, has tried to keep things at a low boil. Except for the soldiers who’ve paid with their lives or limbs, and their loved ones, Afghanistan has become a mosquito for most Americans, an annoying buzz in the background, an “oh-are-we-still-there?” response when mentioned.

But now it appears the public and our political leaders are waking from their slumber and saying “enough.” On Sept. 30, the Tampa Bay Times published a detailed and sobering report about the tragic death of Army Staff Sgt. Matt Sitton of Largo, who dared to complain to his congressman about the increasing pointlessness of the war.

Sitton was a gung-ho soldier, a Ranger sniper who at first was fully committed to the idea of bringing freedom to oppressed Afghans. But on his third deployment, he saw that things had changed on the ground. Afghans no longer wanted us there, and Afghan soldiers and police were beginning to turn against our troops.

He wrote in June to Rep. C.W. Bill Young of St. Petersburg, who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations and previously a staunch supporter of the war. Sitton said commanders were sending troops on patrols — and into minefields — for no real purpose.

Not two months later, Sitton was killed by a mine. He left behind a wife and a son. Young had Sitton’s letter read at a congressional hearing and announced he had changed his mind – it was time for American troops to leave Afghanistan. Others may follow Young’s lead.

President Obama’s plan to gradually withdraw American troops has more than a year to run its course, which feels like an awfully long time. With the increasing number of attacks on American forces by Afghan soldiers and police who are supposed to be allies, events could rapidly overtake Obama’s gradualism. Concern for those who wear the uniform can cause even a hawk to take up an olive branch.

We have lost 2,000 American lives in Afghanistan, just 1/25th of the number killed in Vietnam. But the numbers are not the main point.

No nation can fight a war forever. No principle or ideal can survive the indefinite drain of blood and money. Public unrest abruptly reversed a military strategy in Vietnam that could be summed up as “more is better.” Sooner or later, people will demand peace, and governments ignore those demands at their peril.

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