In honoring veterans, Obama contemplates future casualties

OPINION - President Obama confronts not only the sobering force of Veterans Day, but also the challenges directly tied to a pending decision which may involve asking thousands...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Last November 11, President-elect Obama honored fallen American troops by placing a wreath at a memorial and making a Veterans Day pledge to the many Americans who have served in the military. That somber fall day, Obama walked with Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois governor’s Veterans Affairs director and an Iraq war veteran who lost both her legs in combat. At that point, the awesome leverages and responsibilities of the presidency hadn’t yet fallen on his shoulders.

Today, his first Veterans Day observance since becoming president, President Obama confronts not only the sobering force of this hallowed national tradition, but also the challenges related to his new role as commander-in-chief. These challenges are directly tied to a pending decision that may involve asking thousands of other Americans to prepare to make the same ultimate sacrifice as the veterans he hails today.

All of President Obama’s predecessors have taken part in this brief but meaningful brush with America’s military traditions. This year is different, of course. For the estimated 2.4 million African-American veterans, many of whom remember a segregated U.S. armed forces, a Veterans Day led by the first African-American president deserves to have a special resonance. Every one of those vets would surely tell you that this is what they fought for.

But the new president marks this Veterans Day possibly having already decided to escalate the American presence in Afghanistan. CBS News reported late on Monday that President Obama plans to send four combat brigades to Afghanistan, plus thousands of additional troops for support. The 68,000 troops there now would grow to 100,000 by late 2012, CBS reported. The White House has denied the accuracy of the CBS report; President Obama isn’t expected to announce his decision until after his trip to China late this month.

But the decision, if confirmed, locks the president into a conflict not just with the elusive Taliban, but also with an Afghan government riddled with corruption. And it eliminates, for good, the old ownership labels affixed to the Afghan War. If this is truly the president’s intention, it’s Obama’s war now.

It’s a war that’s becoming increasingly dangerous. According to the iCasualties website which monitors U.S. and coalition casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 287 American forces have been killed in Operation Enduring Freedom (defending Afghanistan) so far in 2009. That’s almost double the full-year tally of 155 in 2008, and there are still another six weeks left to run in this year.

It’s a war that, if escalated, has the potential to undo Obama’s main symbolic weapon – which is creating a vision of the United States as an agent of change. For many here and abroad, a new troop buildup would be a sign of the same old muscle flexing of the Bush administration – with the risk of further animosity. A New York Times report recently said: “If the foreign forces are not seen so by Afghans already, they are on the cusp of being regarded as occupiers, with little to show people for their extended presence, fueling wild conspiracies about why they remain here…More American troops could tip the balance of opinion, particularly if they increase civilian casualties and prompt even more Taliban attacks.”

Foreign policy scholars and analysts are also skeptical. Harvard University’s Stephen Walt said the case for a full withdrawal was “fairly compelling,” particularly because of the domestic economic crisis. “The costs are going to be large at a time when the American economy is not exactly robust,” he said at an Oct. 29 panel on U.S. Afghan policy in Washington.

“Bringing more U.S. personnel to Afghanistan undermines the already weak authority of the Afghan leaders, interferes with an ability to deal with other security challenges elsewhere in the world, and pulls us further into a bloody, protracted guerrilla war with no end in sight,” Christopher Preble of the nonpartisan Cato Institute said at the panel.

The war hardly has overwhelming public backing. An NBC/WSJ poll in September found 51 percent opposed to a troop increase, while 44 percent supported it. But 52 percent of people questioned in a CNN survey released the week before said the Afghan War has parallels with the Vietnam War. Forty-six percent disagreed. According to that poll, 59 percent of people questioned were against sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Of that 59 percent, 28 percent want U.S. forces out altogether.

But those are the views of Washington eggheads and random Americans. The poll that matters is the poll of those people with skin in the game: the veterans who are the mothers and fathers of soldiers in Afghanistan want to know what the endgame will be.

For them, there’s more to Veterans Day than flags and ceremony and no mail delivery. Theirs is a justified fear that the observance of Veterans Day, a day to honor the living, will be followed for years, escalating casualty by casualty, by the poignancy and impact of that other observance of sacrifice Memorial Day, whose name speaks eloquently for itself.