Thursday, October 28, 2010

5,755 and Counting

I thought the number would be 1,000.

That would be the number of America’s sons and daughters dead in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that would catch our attention and end our involvement.

I was wrong. This morning I read the names of two more children, both 21 years old, who were the 4, 417th (Iraq) and 1,338th (Afghanistan) war deaths. 5,755 and counting.

I appreciate the New York Times’ willingness to publish, daily, the names of our fallen soldiers. Their families deserve our thoughts and thanks, and I wish every paper in the country would follow the Times’ lead.

Perhaps the papers should add a daily tally of the financial cost of these wars as well. It would be hard to do, the costs are spread all over the federal budget and we spend so quickly the tracking services numbers race across the page. Additionally, we have no way of knowing what future obligations these wars will invoke. But as of this morning at 7 a.m. it looks we have spent about $1,099, 250,200,000 on the wars. (Or nearly $9,500 per household.)

(By the way, I worry about what we are doing to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan as well—the numbers dead, the cities and infrastructure ruined.)

Why am I cluttering up an education blog with talk of the wars? I’m a high school principal, what do I know?

Not much, really, but during the recent election cycle I have heard next to nothing about the wars and their costs in terms of lives destroyed and dollars wasted. Why not?

Perhaps it is because the leader of the loyal opposition in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, thinks his party’s most important job is to end the Obama Presidency. Or maybe debating who is most likely to follow the Constitution is easier than taking a stand on extracting us from our foreign wars.

But as an educator, I want to know why our leaders are behaving so foolishly. They talk about reducing deficits, but the war adds to it by the minute and it never comes up. They bemoan the cost of health care legislation or the stimulus or TARP but not a word is said about the cost of war.

How, I ask myself, can we ever teach our children about the use of facts versus opinion, evidence versus hearsay, or reason versus bluster when our leaders do not seem to know the difference?

More importantly, we educators know some things about change that could help the country out if we were listened to. We do not say it often enough, but what we do holds the key to the changes we thought these wars would bring about.

That’s right, if we had decided, back in 2001, to spend a decade building a public education system in Afghanistan and supporting liberal (read, not fundamentalist) education efforts in Iraq and other nations, we would have spent less and accomplished more.

I apologize for not pointing this out earlier and leaving it to Nick Kristof of the Times to recently state the obvious—more schools, not troops is the way to stop extremism. To add injury to insult, it took a soldier who responded to Kristof to illustrate how $359,000 spent on teacher preparation in Afghanistan would provide 200 new teachers for Afghani schools and set up the program to run without additional support. Oh, and that $359,000 is about the cost of one 2,000 pound bomb.

Of course, Kristof will always say it better than I, so I want to let him sum up the point I am trying to make here:

It always strikes me that in decisions about the military, financial constraints are rarely even discussed. Rather people say: If the commander wants troops, he should have them. But of course nobody would say: If the Secretary of State wants diplomats, she should have them. Perhaps that’s why there are more members of American military bands than there are diplomats in the American foreign service. Likewise, there is a furious debate about the cost of health care reform, but much less about the cost of troops in Afghanistan — which is already mounting at a clip of $60 billion a year, two-thirds the cost of health reform. (Full blog here.)

How long will we keep counting the dead and dollars while our politicians remain silent?

(In the meantime, maybe every educator in this nation could donate to the effort to build schools in Afghanistan—how about we all pledge as much as we paid for the political nonsense we have heard over the past few months. I would recommend the Central Asia Institute which is busy building schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

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