You Don't Give a Shit about Our Troops in Iraq!


That's the main point behind Princeton prof Uwe E. Reinhardt's opaque-as-hell op-ed in today's Wash Post, which argues that the lack of sacrifice by the nation has created a sort of "moral hazard" when it comes to war:

A policymaking elite whose families and purses are shielded from the sacrifices war entails may rush into it hastily and ill prepared, as surely was the case of the Iraq war. Moral hazard in this context…can explain why, in wartime, the TV anchors on the morning and evening shows barely make time to report on the wars, lest the reports displace the silly banter with which they seek to humor their viewers. Do they ever wonder how military families with loved ones in the fray might feel after hearing ever so briefly of mayhem in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Moral hazard also can explain why the general public is so noticeably indifferent to the plight of our troops and their families. To be sure, we paste cheap magnetic ribbons on our cars to proclaim our support for the troops. But at the same time, we allow families of reservists and National Guard members to slide into deep financial distress as their loved ones stand tall for us on lethal battlefields and the family is deprived of these troops' typically higher civilian salaries. We offer a pittance in disability pay to seriously wounded soldiers who have not served the full 20 years that entitles them to a regular pension. And our legislative representatives make a disgraceful spectacle of themselves bickering over a mere $1 billion or so in added health care spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs -- in a nation with a $13 trillion economy!

This is a version of the standing argument against an all-volunteer military. That argument holds that a draft, however imperfect, spread around the burden of military service to all classes, etc. in the country and hence made senators, back when they actually voted on declarations of war, less likely to sacrifice their fortunate sons. I know of no studies that show that volunteer forces are more readily deployed or suffer higher rates of casualities than draft armies. It would be interesting to see if such data exist, at least so that human cost could be balanced against the clear-cut near-slavery that a draft army or mandatory national service of any sort entails. There is data from Vietman War which suggests that, at least in terms of fatalities, class did not play the role normally ascribed to it. A 1992 MIT study, for instance, conlcuded, "Data about the residential addresses of war casualties suggest that, within both large heterogeneous cities and wealthy suburbs, there was little relationship between neighborhood incomes and per capita Vietnam death rates" (more here).

In any case, I find Reinhardt's argument too lacking in detail to be particularly convincing on the question of disability payments and "financial distress" suffered by reservists, National Guardsmen, etc. What is his specific policy recommendation here? He talks of families of soldiers needing help to "stock their pantries"--what's the magnitude of that need? Does he really mean that all wars should be paid for with immediate tax revenues (as opposed to "borrowing abroad"?). And is he suggesting that all wars should effectively be total wars--that is, ones that require ration coupons and other immediate and stultifying sacrifices on the part of all citizens?

I'm frankly puzzled by his assertion that nightly news programs don't talk about the Iraq war, its U.S. casualites, and stories from the home front--there seems to be no shortage of such pieces on a daily basis.

I'm sympathetic to his large point--that if waging war is no skin off most people's apple, they are more likely to indulge a political class bent on waging war--but he gives no meaningful support of that position.

Whole thing here.