Holidays like Memorial Day are interesting in my house—it’s one of the of those times of year when my husband and I get into some interesting conversations. You see, he is a professor of political science at UPENN, and his research focuses on war. He studies war quantitatively, which means that he ends up looking at a lot of statistical data. Things like, “how many deaths occurred on this battlefield in this month between these two countries?” His computer contains excel spreadsheets that go page after page after page, detailing battle deaths for every month of every conflict going back as far as there are decent records to rely on.
But what is interesting to me is how few of those conflicts, especially when it comes to the United States, are actually considered wars by our countries. It turns out that the last time our congress officially declared war was when we entered World War II in 1942, which means that, technically speaking, every “conflict” that we have engaged in since isn’t a war by a certain standard. The Korean War, The Vietnam War, The Balkans War, the First Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan—none of them are wars, at least according to Congress.
And all I can think is: if those aren’t wars, then I don’t know what is.
Turns out there are a lot of different definitions for what counts as a war out there. And according to those definitions, right now we are currently fighting somewhere between 0 and 134 wars.
The case for zero: we haven’t declared war since 1942 so there has been no war since then.
The case for at least 6: if what counts as war is extensive military incursion, without necessarily being declared war as such by congress, then we are at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and Syria.
The case for as many as 134: this represents the number of countries that the United States had special operations forces in as of September 2014. These forces can be doing anything from actually fighting, to training or providing support to military forces in other countries.
It is almost as if the world is a battlefield, and we are in the midst of it.
Now, not so long ago, it was difficult to avoid the realities of war in this country. Americans felt the cost of war—Americans were drafted into military service, and families endured rationing of food and basic supplies.
Things are somewhat different today. For starters, those who serve in the military are all volunteers. Unlike Vietnam, no one serves who doesn’t wish to.
But it turns out that there is a cost to a volunteer military force—those of us who do not wish to see the war, do not have to, either. When there is no threat of a draft, it is easy to live your life as though the actions of the military have little or no consequence. In a world where rationing is unnecessary and the draft is gone, the reality that our nation continues to engage in acts of war around the world gets pushed beyond the front page of the news, until we forget that we are fighting anywhere at all.
Which leaves those who serve in our armed forces to bear the burden of conflict alone. It has been said that those who serve in the military these days comprise the “other 1%,” and that small fraction of our nation bears the cost of war and conflict in their bodies, their communities, and their families.
They are the ones who know that in 2014, we lost 60 members of our armed forces during active service. They know that this year, only two service members have died while deployed thus far.
But there is another number that tells a darker story of the wounds that our military servicemen and women bear. 288. That is the number of suicides recorded among active-duty personnel in 2014. For the last five years, that number has hovered around 300, or about 30 deaths per 100,000 soldiers, which is 2.5 times as high as the rate for the general population. And this does not even take into account the number of soldiers alive today who struggle with psychic and physical wounds sustained on the battlefield–from PTSD and traumatic brain injury to chemical weapons injuries and the loss of limbs.
How heavy must the burden be that service men and women carry. To choose to serve, and then to discover that nobody knows the cost. These men and women are the ones who see what we would rather not—they serve in places we only hear of on television, they risk their lives in response to orders from high above them, subject themselves to conditions of deep risk, uncertainty, violence. They engage with communities where malnutrition and disease regularly claim the lives of the weak. They experience untold horror of killing another human being, and of seeing fellow humans killed, and are expected to make sense of it. They see what is invisible to us, and in doing so, many of them become less visible to us. We look beyond them, for they remind us of what we would rather not know—that, in the name of peace, we continue to kill each other, and use young men and women to do so.
We who serve Jesus Christ are called not to look away from the awful truths of war. We are called to open our eyes and see the truth that violence births in the world, to stand alongside the “other 1%” and carry their burden with them. We are called not to look away from that which is uncomfortable, but rather to know the cost that military violence incurs in the world. To mourn the loss of life through conflict, and suicide, and hope deferred. To remember that Jesus, who called us to be peacemakers, called on us not only to pray for peace, but to actively pursue it. To not just imagine a world in which war is a memory, but to labor on behalf of peace until we live in a world where the total number of deaths in active service is zero.
I think we can start by listening to our brothers and sisters who have chosen to serve. I heard an interview this week with veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who shared that the best thing that we can do for servicemen and women is to get to know them. To build relationships with veterans who live in our neighborhoods, hire them in our businesses, care about them as individuals. For when we know them, when we hear their stories, perhaps we can begin to understand the cost of the wars that we all too easily ignore.
The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of God endures forever. Amen.
One Cost of Military Violence
This list represents those who died during active, deployed service to the United States of America in 2014 through May 2015. The list is divided by branch of the military, and includes information about how the serviceman or woman died, as well as the country in which he or she was deployed at the time of his or her death. Overall, this list represents 60 deaths in 2014, and 2 in 2015 (so far). It does not include the 288 suicides of active military in 2014. The information in this list was found by searching the database of Military Times at “Honor the Fallen.”
Specialist John M Dawson: died in combat, Afghanistan
Specialist Wyatt Martin: IED, Afghanistan
Sgt 1st class Ramon S. Morris: IED, Afghanistan
Staff Sgt. Matthew Ammerman: died in combat, Afghanistan
Specialist Joseph W Riley: Vehicle Borne IED, Afghanistan
Sgt. Major Wardell Turner: Vehicle Borne IED, Afghanistan
Sgt 1st Class Michael A Cathcart: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Major Jonathan D. Walker: non-combat related causes, Qatar
Sgt 1st Class Andrew T Weathers: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Major Michael J Donahue: suicide Car Bomb Attack, Afghanistan
Specialist Brian K Arsenault: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Sgt Christopher W Mulalley: noncombat incident, Afghanistan
Sgt 1st Class Matthew I Leggett: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Sgt. 1st Class Samuel C Hairstron: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Major Harold J Greene: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Staff Sgt Girard D Gass, Jr.: noncombat incident while on patrol, Afghanistan
Private 1st Class Donnell A Hamilton, Jr.: illness sustained in Afghanistan
Staff Sgt Benjamin G Prange: IED, Afghanistan
Private 1st Class Keith M Williams: IED, Afghanistan
Corporal Justin R Clouse: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan
Specialist Justin R Helton: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan
Specialist Terry J Hume: noncombat incident, Afghanistan
Staff Sgt Jason A McDonald: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan
Staff Sgt Scott R Studenmund: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan
Private Aaron S Toppen: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan
Private 1st Class Matthew H Walker: died in combat, Afghanistan
Captain Jason B Jones: died in combat, Afghanistan
Private 1st Class Jacob H Wykstra: aircraft accident, Afghanistan
Specialist Adrian M Perkins: noncombat injury, Jordan
Command Sgt Major Martin R Barreras: died in combat, Afghanistan
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Deric M Rasmussen: noncombat incident, Afghanistan
Specialist Daniela Rojas: noncombat illness, Germany
Specialist Christian J Chandler: died in combat, Afghanistan
Sargeant Shawn M Farrell II: died in combat, Afghanistan
Specialist Kerry MG Danyluk: died in combat, Afghanistan
Captain James E Chaffin III: died in noncombat incident, Afghanistan
Specialist John A Pelham: died in combat, Afghanistan
Sgt 1st Class Roberto C Skelt: died in combat, Afghanistan
Private 1st Class Joshua A Gray: Died in noncombat incident, Afghanistan
Specialisit Christopher A Landis: died in combat, Afghanistan
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Edward Balli: died in combat, Afghanistan
Specialist Andrew H Sipple: died in noncombat incident, Afghanistan
Staff Sgt Daniel T Lee: Died in combat, Afghanistan
Sgt Drew M Scoble: Died in aircraft crash, Afghanistan
Sgt 1st Class William K Lacey: Died in Combat, Afghanistan (rocket attack)
Captain William H DuBois: Aircraft crash, Middle East
Master Sgt David L Poirier: noncombat death, undisclosed location in SW Asia
Tech. Sgt Anthony E Salazr: non combat incident, SW Asia
Commander Christopher E Kalafut:: noncombat related incident, Qatar
Lt JG Stephen Byus: Suicide Car Bomb, Afghanistan
Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Yeshabel Villot-Carrasco: non-hostile causes, Red Sea
Lance Corporal Sean P Neal: noncombat related causes, Iraq
Corporal Jordan L Spears: lost at sea, North Arabian Gulf
Sgt Charles C Strong: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Sgt Thomas Z Spitzer: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Lance Corporal Brandon J Garabrant: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Staff Sgt David H Stewart: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Lance Corporal Adam F Wolff: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Lance Corporal Caleb L Erickson: Suicide bomber attack, Afghanistan
Master Sgt Aaron C Torlan: IED, Afghanistan
Sgt Jacob M Hess: Died in Combat in Afghanistan
Wyoming Natl Guard
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andrew L McAdams: Died in aircraft crash, Afghanistan
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andrew L McAdams: Died in aircraft crash, Afghanistan