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Cannon Fodder Day?

by Geov Parrish Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003 at 5:54 PM

Each year, America sets aside one day to honor and cherish its veterans. Pity about the other 364.

Cannon Fodder Day?

Geov Parrish -

11.10.03 - Each year, America sets aside one day to honor and cherish its veterans.

Pity about the other 364.

This year, Veterans' Day -- a holiday usually treated as not much more than a paean to America's armed forces and the soldiers who served in them -- has taken on sort of a grim urgency. It's hard to know where the grimness stops. Veterans of World War II, the last war that the general public considers unabashedly heroic, are dying off. The next waves of soldiers, who saw duty during the "police action" in Korea and the decade-long nightmare of Vietnam, are aging and starting to incur extensive health problems at a time when the Bush Administration has cut back spending and benefits for the Veterans' Administration health care system.

Younger vets from Gulf War I continue to be plagued by mysterious illnesses that the VA generally continues to refuse to acknowledge or treat as service-related. And now, American soldiers are back in Iraq, trapped in a nightmare scenario. Some aren't coming home alive. Rumors abound that many who are coming home are suffering even more extensively and seriously from mystery maladies. For all of this, the VA and the Bush Administration are stonewalling pleas from vet groups, young and old alike. George "AWOL in wartime" Bush can wear a uniform for a photo-op, but the men and women who actually took on risk for their country are at best the victims of a sort of cruel political expediency, forgotten except when some president or congressperson wants to wrap themselves in a flag.

It has ever been thus. The longest-running example of America reneging on its promises to veterans, America's Filipino World War II vets, is now in its seventh decade. In June 1941, with tensions in the Pacific with Japan rising, FDR announced a draft for men in the Philippines -- then a U.S. colony like Guam or American Samoa. For the next five years, prior to Filipino independence, Filipino soldiers fought alongside mainland American soldiers, indistinguishable in service or risk. But when independence came, Congress shoveled benefits for the vets off on the much poorer new country. Ever since, Filipino vets -- many of whom eventually emigrated to the U.S. -– have been agitating to receive the same benefits as other U.S. veterans. It's been to no avail; despite a number of efforts in Congress over the years, the price tag has remained too high, and the vets in question too low of a priority. And now they're dying off.

Such stories of veterans' groups becoming political footballs have plagued the U.S. in recent years. Vietnam vets tell of being shunned by older vets and politicians for having fought in a losing and unpopular war. Every U.S. invasion from Grenada to Iraq II has been accompanied by unofficial stories and rumors of the Pentagon's testing of esoteric new battlefield weapons on the natives, and on the U.S. soldiers underfoot. The cluster of illnesses, many debilitating or deadly, that make up Gulf War Syndrome are most popularly thought to be a result of either armed forces vaccinations or America's ever-increasing reliance on radioactive field munitions -- first armor-piercing depleted uranium (DU) in the first Gulf War, and also, more recently, undepleted uranium (which is not more radioactive, but a different, and deadlier, isotope) in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The latest foray into Iraq has been complicated by the U.S.'s decade-long economic sanctions against the Saddam Hussein regime, which effectively prevented the Iraqis from obtaining the equipment needed to clean up DU debris from the 1991 war. Cancer rates among Iraqis have continued to soar since 1991, but the VA has been in yet another variant of a "don't ask, don't tell" mode. Veterans in their 30's, as with Filipino vets in their 80's, are dying without any government assistance for their medical care. And veterans of all ages continue to die at epidemic rates from suicides and other effects of the mental toll their wartime experiences took.

Today, there's an obvious need for far more servicepeople than America currently has in order to fulfill the Bush mission of subjugating Iraq -- let alone Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the world. At the same time, there have been widespread public reports of horrid morale among troops stationed in Iraq -- soldiers who are underpaid, ill-equipped, poorly trained for the task at hand, reviled by the locals, and at risk for being shot or blown to bits at any time of day or night. The Pentagon continues to call up reservists, generally people with hurried, even worse training who are then being rushed into harm's way. It's only a matter of time before armed force recruitment sags after its patriotic peak earlier this year. Multiple efforts are afoot in Congress to reinstitute some form of the draft or public service, and for the first time since Vietnam, they're getting serious consideration.

How much longer until the term "cannon fodder" is back in use?

All in all, America's treatment of its veterans, current and future, is shameful. Fortunately, the steps needed to improve it are simple.

First, appropriate the money needed to fulfill America's promises to existing vets. And then stop creating so many new ones.

(c) Working Assets Online. All rights reserved.


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