To ‘die for your country’ now means to die accidentally or to kill yourself
By Herbert Rothschild
If you’re interested in public policy at the national level, you might want to become familiar with the Congressional Research Service. You can access its unclassified reports at everycrsreport.com. The archive is searchable by topic.
CRS has roughly 600 employees — lawyers, economists, historians, political scientists, reference librarians, and scientists. My goddaughter is a CRS librarian. One of the many reports she’s authored is “Trends in Active-Duty Military Deaths From 2006 Through 2021,” updated Sept. 9, 2022.
Two things in that report arrested my attention. One was the categories into which the deaths were sorted and the percentage of deaths attributed to each category. Overall, the Department of Defense reported 19,378 deaths during those years. Of those, 14.1% died in action and 4.6% of wounds sustained in action. The largest number of deaths were accidental (32%), the second largest were self-inflicted (25.4%), the third largest were illness/injury (17.9%). Only in 2007 did combat deaths exceed non-combat deaths, and since 2014 there have been few combat deaths.
In the last five years (2018-2022), suicides have been the leading cause of death among active duty service personnel. They accounted for 39% of all fatalities.
So, to “die for your country” has come to mean to die accidentally or to kill yourself. And after service members leave the military, they keep killing themselves or succumb to physical illnesses caused by exposure to toxics.
The Department of Veterans Affairs keeps careful records of suicides. Despite its strenuous efforts, for the last two decades veterans have killed themselves at roughly twice the rate as our general population. In 2001 it was 23 per 100,000 compared to 13 per 100,000; in 2020 it was 32 per 100,000 compared to 16 per 100,000. In 2020, veterans ages 18-34 had a suicide rate of 46 per 100,000.
The VA doesn’t keep good statistics on service-related illnesses, especially those related to toxic exposure. When I wrote in July about the poisoned drinking water at Camp Lejeune Marine base, I referenced an estimate as high as 2 million affected persons. Advocates of those poisoned at burn pits in Iraq use the figure 3 million.
Beyond its taxonomy of military mortality, the second thing that struck me in the CRS report was the number of places where combat deaths occurred. The Department of Defense uses the predictably opaque term Overseas Contingency Operations for its combat operations. While most of the OCO deaths from 2006 through 2021 occurred in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, the report mentions 28 locations, both on land and at sea. The report didn’t specify those 28 locations, and I wonder how many of our senators and representatives could tell me where they were.
We all knew we were going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In neither case did the Bush administration ask Congress for a formal declaration of war, which the drafters of our Constitution thought they had required. Still, in those two instances Congress had ample opportunity to weigh in. In 2001, with little consideration it passed the ill-advisedly open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force with only Rep. Barbara Lee dissenting. Congress did better regarding Iraq. The 2002 authorization for use of force against Iraq was seriously debated, and 23 senators and 133 representatives voted against it.
But that’s not how we got into a full-scale war in Vietnam. We crept into it beginning in Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, with the CIA doing more of the fighting than the military during the early years. By the time Lyndon Johnson began the big troop buildup in 1965, the die had been cast. Congress not only hadn’t authorized that war, it hadn’t even debated it as a policy option.
After Vietnam, presidents still initiated OCOs, but they were quick to end them when faced with the choice of significant escalation. So it was with Ronald Reagan in Lebanon and Bill Clinton in Somalia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama got us embroiled in Syria, hoping to exploit its version of the Arab Spring to oust President Bashar al-Assad, and I’m not sure what would have happened there if she had won the 2016 election. There was serious talk of imposing a no-fly zone over parts of that country, which risked engagement with Russian aircraft. Appalling as Donald Trump was, Hillary Clinton was more likely to take us into World War III and Armageddon.
The War Powers Resolution of 1973, passed over Richard Nixon’s veto and intended to prevent a president from getting us into an armed conflict without congressional consent, requires a president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without congressional authorization of military force or a declaration of war. This belated attempt by Congress to exercise its constitutional duty hasn’t effectively checked the imperial presidency. To the extent administrations have felt any constraint, they often cite the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force as authority to embroil us anywhere simply by labeling our antagonists as terrorists.
A lesser-known congressional authorization that administrations use and abuse is colloquially known as 127 Echo, which takes its name from Section 127 e of Title 10 of the U.S. Civil Code, originally enacted in 2005. Next week I’ll tell you about our 127 Echo operations, because the long-standing one in Lebanon is likely to embroil us directly in an expanding Mideast war.
Those of us deeply unhappy about our nation’s huge waste of human life and resources over the last seven decades in its quest for global domination can’t count on Democrats in the White House and most Democrats in Congress to change course. And it’s hard to know where the Republican Party stands, since its leaders take their cues from a notoriously mercurial and ill-informed narcissist. Our best hope may be the increasing difficulty the service branches are having in meeting their recruitment goals, thanks, in part, to increasing public awareness of the high rates of suicide, sexual assault and toxic poisoning associated with military service.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at email@example.com.
This column mentions suicide. Individuals in crisis or looking to help someone else who is can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988, or visit 988lifeline.org for more resources.