Lift the Curtain
By BOB HERBERT
Neglect, incompetence, indifference, lies.
Why in the world is anyone surprised that the Bush administration has not been taking good care of wounded and disabled American troops?
Real-life human needs have never been a priority of this administration. The evidence is everywhere — from the mind-bending encounter with the apocalypse in Baghdad, to the ruined residential neighborhoods in New Orleans, to the anxious families in homes across America who are offering tearful goodbyes to loved ones heading off to yet another pointless tour in Iraq.
The trial and conviction of Scooter Libby opened the window wide on the twisted values and priorities of the hawkish operation in the vice president’s office. No worry about the troops there.
And President Bush has always given the impression that he is more interested in riding his bicycle at the ranch in Texas than in taking care of his life and death responsibilities around the world.
That whistling sound you hear is the wind blowing across the emptiness of the administration’s moral landscape.
U.S. troops have been treated like trash since the beginning of Mr. Bush’s catastrophic adventure in Iraq. Have we already forgotten that soldier from the Tennessee National Guard who dared to ask Donald Rumsfeld why the troops had to go scrounging in landfills for “hillbilly armor” — scrap metal — to protect their vehicles from roadside bombs?
Fellow soldiers cheered when the question was raised, and others asked why they were being sent into combat with antiquated equipment. The defense secretary was not amused. “You go to war with the Army you have,” he callously replied, “not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Have we forgotten that while most Americans have sacrificed zilch for this war, the mostly uncomplaining soldiers and marines are being sent into the combat zones for two, three and four tours? Multiple combat tours are an unconscionable form of Russian roulette that heightens the chances of a warrior being killed or maimed.
In the old days, these troops would have been referred to as cannon fodder. However you want to characterize them now, their casually unfair treatment is an expression of the belief that they are expendable.
The Washington Post has performed an important public service by shining a spotlight on the contemptible treatment that some soldiers received as outpatients at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The series has already prompted Congressional hearings, and the president climbed off his bicycle long enough to appoint the requisite commission. The question is whether Congress and the public can be roused to take action on behalf of the troops.
It’s not just the indifference and incompetence of the administration that are causing the troops so much unnecessary suffering. The simple truth is that the Bush crowd, busy trying to hide the costs of the president’s $2 trillion tragedy in Iraq, can’t find the money to pay for all the care that’s needed by the legions of wounded and mentally disabled troops who are coming home. The outpatient fiasco at Walter Reed is just one aspect of a vast superstructure of suffering.
The military is overextended and falling apart. Equipment worn out or destroyed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has to be replaced. The perennial, all-consuming appetite of the military-industrial complex has to be satisfied. And now, here comes that endless line of wounded men and women, some of them disabled for life.
How is all of this to be paid for?
The administration has tried its best to keep the reality of the war away from the public at large, to keep as much of the carnage as possible behind the scenes. No pictures of the coffins coming home. Limited media access to Walter Reed.
That protective curtain needs to be stripped away, exposing the enormity of this catastrophe for all to see.
I remember walking the quiet, manicured grounds of Walter Reed on an unauthorized visit and seeing the young men and women moving about in wheelchairs or on crutches. Some were missing two and three limbs. All had suffered grievously.
There is something profoundly evil about a country encouraging young men and women to go off and fight its wars and then shortchanging them on medical care and other forms of assistance when they come back with wounds that will haunt them forever.
That’s something most Americans never thought their country would do.