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Story highlights

Michael Desch: After more than a decade of nearly constant war, even elite troops are feeling strain

Defending our security rarely requires preventive war and global social engineering, he says

Editor’s Note: Michael Desch is the co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Center. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) —  

This week’s New York Times investigative piece on the likely suicide of Navy Cmdr. Job W. Price, the commander of SEAL Team Four in Afghanistan and another casualty in America’s longest war, should remind us that when we talk about putting boots on the ground, they are filled by flesh-and-blood men and women.

After more than a decade of nearly constant war, even our elite troops are feeling the strain, as the piece makes tragically clear. But you would never know that from the rhetoric of the presidential campaign. The narrative among the Republican candidates, few of whom have served in the military, is one in which a feckless President Barack Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by drawing down our forces, and, in the case of Iraq, withdrawing entirely.

In response to the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, these aspiring GOP commanders in chief are eager to put more American boots on the ground, forgetting that they have been there all along.

Michael Desch
PHOTO: Matt Cashore
Michael Desch

Last summer, Republican front-runner Donald Trump promised MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he would “knock the hell out” of ISIS by putting boots on the ground to deprive them of oil. And while his nearest rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, seems more circumspect in dealing with ISIS, preferring instead to “carpet bomb them into oblivion,” when pushed, he won’t rule out American troops on the ground either.

Lest we think that eagerness to put boots on the ground is strictly a partisan issue, even Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is willing to do so, last fall supporting Obama’s decision to deploy a small number of Special Operations Forces in Syria.

Don’t get me wrong – there is a time and a place to send our soldiers in harm’s way. Jack Nicholson’s fictional character Marine Col. Nathan Jessup in the movie “A Few Good Men” was right that “we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.” And I, for one, am quite happy to declare, even at parties, that I want them on those walls. But increasingly, we confuse such necessary guard duty with sending troops to do much more, as we’ve done in Afghanistan and Iraq and as some now propose to do in Syria.

Yet defending our security rarely requires preventive war and global social engineering.

Cmdr. Price epitomized the hard-charging, can-do attitude of the U.S. military’s elite forces. He never failed to answer the call of duty, deploying numerous times over the past decade. And while Price and other Special Operations Forces are in many respects exceptional soldiers, their experience of multiple deployments in dangerous and stressful situations is typical of our post-9/11 armed forces. The human cost on them has been great.

Some troops, such as Sarah Palin’s son, returned from a deployment with psychological wounds they may have to live with for the rest of their lives. The former Alaska governor blames the current administration for not doing enough for veterans. But while more certainly can and must be done for those who’ve served and need care, she should not ignore the fact that many of them would not need it in the first place had they not been sent to war recklessly by the previous Republican administration (and with the enthusiastic support of her former running mate John McCain).

And unlike America’s previous wars, in which a large number of Americans fought in them, today’s all-volunteer force has placed the burden of the Global War on Terrorism upon a very small number of men and women, many of whom have gone down range numerous times. During World War II, for example, nearly 10% of the population was in uniform. In the Cold War, the percentage varied between 2.5% and 1.5%, according to data from military sociologists David and Mady Segal. Today, the figure is less than .05%. Never in our history have so few done so much to fight our wars for the rest of us.

Our politicians talk a lot about supporting the troops. Usually they mean by increasing their numbers or giving them newer weapons. For many average Americans, it also involves buying them drinks in airport bars, giving up our first class seats on flights and publicly thanking them for their service.

Of course, those are good things. But as the tragic case of Price suggests, supporting our troops should also mean recognizing that even the very best of them are human beings. We should therefore be judicious about where, why and for how long we put them in harm’s way.

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