sergeant liam dwyer of Connecticut trod on a booby-trapped bomb in southern
Afghanistan the explosion could be heard 13 miles away. It blew off his left
leg, much of his right one, left his left arm “hanging by threads” and smashed
his right arm. “I’m bleeding out and about to die,” he recalls thinking before
he blacked out. His field-medic turned away to work on lesser casualties. But another
marine sergeant clapped tourniquets on what remained of Mr Dwyer and hauled him
to a helicopter. A week later, after round-the-clock treatment by American and
British medics in Afghanistan, Germany and on many aircraft, he awoke at Walter
Reed National Military Medical Centre. His parents were by his bed. Thinking he
was still on the battlefield, Mr Dwyer lunged forwards to try to protect them.
later he was back at Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland—and life was great, he
told your columnist. He had some gripes, to be sure: including incessant
operations (he has had “well over 60”), the impossibility of holding down a
regular job because of his treatment and a terror of undoing years of painful
therapy by slipping in the shower. On the other hand he was a big fan of his
new prosthetic leg, which had been embedded in his femur: he would “recommend
osseointegration to anyone,” he said. Indeed he was “looking forward to getting
his right leg amputated” too, maybe a decade from now.
reluctant to get it done sooner only because he still needed the painfully
damaged limb for his work as a racing-car driver with Mazda, for which he also
gave thanks. And he loved his wife, an occupational therapist he had met at
Walter Reed. “I had this positive outlook from the get-go,” he said. “If
there’s something out there that you want to do, you can either be a pioneer or
else find someone who can help you out with it. When you have a negative
attitude, no one wants to be around you, which starts screwing with your mind.
A lot of guys have issues with that.”
coverage of the participants in America’s interminable 9/11 wars tends to focus
on the health and social problems many face. Of the 2.7m who have served in
Iraq or Afghanistan, 35% are said by the Department of Veterans Affairs to have
a disability. That includes many with post-traumatic stress, which makes sense:
patrolling built-up areas of Iraq at the height of its violence was especially
horrific. And the concussive effects of blast injuries are liable to be
long-term. Yet such figures may be misleading.
disability claims on the va are alleged to be exaggerated or distantly related
to military service. And other indicators of veterans’ well-being are more
reassuring. Only 3.8% of post-9/11 veterans are unemployed, scarcely more than
the general populace. Moreover, the number of soldiers officially counted as
wounded-in-action in Iraq and Afghanistan is only 53,000 (2% of the total who
served). And around half, having minor injuries, returned to the fray within 72
hours. Almost two decades of war by America’s million-odd troops, waged against
an enemy heavily reliant on roadside bombs, has produced around 2,000 amputees.
And that surprisingly low number is despite a revolution in the survival rate
of badly wounded soldiers. The Department of Defence estimates the improved
tourniquet that saved Mr Dwyer was alone responsible for saving 3,000
lives—roughly half the total American death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan.
breakthroughs at every stage of the military medical process, from use of
psychotherapy to computerised prosthetics, have meanwhile improved the
long-term outlook for severely wounded vets like Mr Dwyer. Notwithstanding the
well-advertised problems at the va, they cannot doubt the government has their
back—or that society does, given the thousands of veterans’ groups that have
mushroomed. “I hate to see any veteran struggling, but I have to ask, have you
asked for help? Because it’s out there,” said another Walter Reed outpatient,
Captain Ferris Butler, who lost his feet to an improvised bomb south of Baghdad
in 2006. Unlike Mr Dwyer he admits to having been haunted by demons after his
injury. But like him he met his wife at Walter Reed, has proceeded from one
success to the next—in business, philanthropy and sport—and exudes positivity
Americans approach what may be the last Veterans Day of the war in Afghanistan,
their longest ever, they may console themselves with this thought. Contrary to
the reported inundation of damaged post-9/11 veterans, their country has been
remarkably unscathed by two decades at war. Iraq and Afghanistan vets represent
much less than 1% of the population. America lost eight times as many soldiers
in Vietnam, in less than half the time, when its population was two-thirds the
current size. The number of recent wounded is correspondingly modest and most
have been looked after with immense skill and no expense spared, as is right.
Otherwise, few Americans have been touched by the conflicts at all.
generations will pay for them: the wars have been funded by debt. Most
Americans have had little reason to think their country is even at war. And
lucky them because war is hell. But this disconnect helps explain why the country’s
civil-military relations are as distant as they are. It also helps explain how
America came to be locked in such long and largely unproductive conflicts in
the first place. Its voters started to reckon with the rights and wrongs of the
Vietnam war—then demand accountability for it—only after they felt its sting.
By contrast Donald Trump, who almost alone among national politicians decries
the latest conflicts, has struggled to interest voters in them—or indeed end
mostly wrong on the details, the president raises an important question of the
long wars. What have they achieved? After thanking Mr Butler and Mr Dwyer for
their service on Veterans Day (a ritual neither wounded man greatly enjoys,
incidentally), their well-wishers might want to ponder that.
Headline: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost most Americans nothing
Source: The Economist