St. Stephen’s Day Reflections on War

Our home is near a community living center for elderly veterans, so we went there for Christmas services yesterday morning. My family and I were almost the only people not using wheelchairs. To sing “Silent Night” with so many people in the December of their lives had a transcendant sweetness, and also inspired some reflection on how different the experience of war was for the generation in the room versus my own.

In World War II, every American was aware of the war every day. Even if one never bought war bonds or collected rubber and tin scraps, the rationing, wage freezes and other privations were omnipresent. The most painful privation of all was the millions of people separated from their families, either for years or for eternity, by the war.

How many Americans paused on Christmas to reflect on the tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers who woke up in Kandahar or Baghdad while their children were still sleeping in New York or St. Louis or Boise? How much privation has been experienced by the 98% of American families who have not had members deployed?

The country isn’t at war, only the military is. Two percent of the population carries the burden and the rest of the country pitches in by accepting tax cuts with equanimity.

When I think about Jonathan’s powerful post asking how we can ignore the horrors being endured by the people of the Congo, my reaction is that if we are capable of ignoring the suffering of our heroic fellow citizens so easily, ignoring the suffering of people from other countries is really no problem at all.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

4 thoughts on “St. Stephen’s Day Reflections on War”

  1. I can't watch the videos of soldiers surprising their families, especially their kids, with a holiday visit; the overflowing joy speaks too strongly of the anguish that has preceded it.

  2. "The country isn’t at war, only the military is."

    A good reason to reinstate the draft without exemptions. In creating the "professional" "volunteer" (but increasingly mercenary) army we distanced it from the lives of most citizens, and that has proven to be a moral failing on our part.

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