This Veterans Day, hold Washington accountable for wars

This Veterans Day, hold Washington accountable for wars
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When I went to war for the first time, I was 23 years old, a light-attack/reconnaissance  helicopter pilot, and had no idea what to expect. I knew why we were being sent to fight in Iraq — our political leadership had made the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime because of the threat of weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism. We were ready to kick some ass,  old-fashioned American style, and we did. I was confident in what we were doing and knew we had the support of the American people.

At the time, I assumed the American people were engaged in the wars we were fighting, wars in which Americans were dying. I assumed it made the news each day, that people were on the edge of their seats, waiting for news from the front lines. But that was my reality, not theirs. I assumed the public was involved — for better, such as with World War II, or for worse, such as with Vietnam.

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But as the wars in the Middle East lingered on, deaths became a sentence crawling across the bottom of a TV screen, or part of a campaign promise. The public’s involvement in the wars dwindled to “Support Our Troops.” The support was phenomenal, and appreciated, but supporting the troops is different from being engaged in daily war activities and caring about the war’s outcome. The catchphrase allows people to disconnect from the wars and go about their own lives. And why shouldn’t they? Here we are in 2018, still at war and now almost 50 percent of the population thinks we’re not at war in Afghanistan, or isn’t sure if we are.

Worse than that, elected officials and government bodies whom Americans have entrusted to make the hard decisions of sending our military to war also have become disengaged. In doing so, they have let down those who serve, and have served, with false promises. They have allowed  complacency and denial to overshadow any potential for a win or a withdrawal.

We have a volunteer force, and people know what they sign up for when they join the military. When we signed up, we knew the military wasn’t a 9-to-5 office job and that war was a realistic part of it. Yet, brave men and women selflessly volunteer to protect this nation and its citizens at the cost of their own lives. That’s about as realistic as it gets.

But, just because we’re lucky enough to have a volunteer force doesn’t mean those service members deserve incompetent or passive decision-making in Washington. The military doesn’t deserve to get thrust into endless wars with no winnable mission; to nation-build or stand up governments that have no hope for sustainability without our military; or to be given failed yo-yo strategies that bounce from administration to administration, with fancy new names and stellar generals whose careers inevitably end because they are tasked with the impossible.

As political discourse and war mismanagement continues to fester, it will take real leadership in Washington to break this continual, stagnant cycle. No elected official wants to act, for fear of political fallout and blame for a war that he or she did not start. But it is time for Congress to represent what the Americans who put them in office truly want: clear, defined and winnable strategies for our troops. Put them in harm’s way only when it’s necessary for our national security. In other words, do your job without putting politics above the lives of service members.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not anti-war. War is necessary to defend our nation, as is having the most lethal, capable and elite fighting force in the world. What I am is anti-incompetence, anti-denial, anti-dysfunction and anti-mismanagement — all those things that we see, year after year, when it comes to military conflict in the Middle East. War should be a last resort. And when it’s not working, leaders should not maintain status quo because they don’t want to be held accountable or are more focused on party politics.

This is the ninth Veterans Day that I have been out of the Army, after serving in combat for a year in Iraq and a year in Afghanistan. Really great people constantly ask me what they can do for veterans — they want to help, but aren’t sure how to go about it. This year, my answer is a little different.

This Veterans Day, honor those who have served, and those who are still serving, by reflecting upon the wars and conflicts we’re involved in. Find out what your elected representatives are doing to make a difference about wars that have cost thousands of lives and more than $1 trillion. Pay attention to national security and foreign policy decisions our leaders make. Those decisions directly affect how and when the military will be used, and its funding. Holding elected officials accountable on these issues matters more than you think.

Veterans Day originated as Armistice Day in 1919, in recognition of the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Thankfully, then we had leaders who were willing to end wars. Today, while we celebrate all those who serve and have served our nation, think about how Washington utilizes our military and the lack of proper management, oversight and accountability for employing it in wars around the world.

Amber Smith is president of Beacon Rock Strategies and the former deputy assistant to the secretary of Defense (Outreach). She is the author of “Danger Close” (Atria Books, 2016) and a combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Follow her on Twitter @AmberSmithUSA.