"02/14/11 1:09 AM
"hello cousin... just dropping you a line... as you know i'm getting closer to leaving and i'm very happy... it's been crazy here... last week we got hit with 4 mortars... no one was hurt... thank god for that... so i'm just taking it easy... oh yeah happy valentine's..."
That e-mail came from my cousin, who's in Iraq, for the third - and we think, hope - last time. It should be - for Iraq, at least - given that last summer U.S. combat troops were withdrawn, leaving 50,000 troops there for 16 more months as trainers and security forces.
But Kermit's e-mail clearly shows that the fighting still goes on in Iraq, and American troops still face grave dangers. As of January, 12 U.S. soldiers had died in Iraq since that draw-down. And the deaths are taking place as violence is on the uptick in Iraq, especially against other Iraqis.
Just a month or so ago, Kermit was in Atlanta, and our family celebrated the coming end to his time in Iraq. Kermit is a reservist. In 2004, after returning from his first deployment, he talked of the death and destruction and confusion he experienced. He also talked of being angry and disillusioned. He vowed not to return and said others shouldn't go either. "Head for the hills," he said.
That view hasn't changed. There is still violence and destruction and confusion in Iraq. The bloodshed can be horrifying. He talked of seeing a soldier blown apart.
But last month, he also talked about something that people who have had no relatives, friends or acquaintances serve in Iraq and Afghanistan during these wars - and with a volunteer military most people have not - might care about: the money the U.S. government has wasted in Iraq. From gobs of food thrown away to contractors (Halliburton, KBR and the like) being paid exorbitantly, most of the time for jobs the U.S. military could and has the time to do, he says we taxpayers are being taken for a ride.
A lot of that waste has been reported in the media, but it's still maddening to hear.
And it's one more reason to add my amen to what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared to cadets at West Point recently: "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."
Gates' comments may or may not be an indictment of this country's rush into an ill-advised war in Iraq, and perhaps even in Afghanistan. But it is an acknowledgement of the enormous costs - human and monetary - of such engagements.
As the New York Times reported it, Gates told the cadets that the Army and the rest of the government must focus on capabilities that can "prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly - and controversial - large-scale American military intervention."
The country should heed that advice, even as tensions and violence surge in Libya and elsewhere. We cannot jump into another crisis without full understanding of the consequences as we did in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates has said he is leaving office this year, and that may be why he could bluntly point out the pitfalls that lie ahead for us militarily.
But we need only look at the carnage that the Iraq war left, and continues to leave for this country, to know caution is advised.
More than 4,400 U.S. troops have been killed, and thousands more have been hurt or disabled. More than 30 percent of those returning home develop serious mental health problems within three to four months after they return. More than 32,000 have serious brain or spinal injuries.
The cost of deploying one soldier for a year in Iraq was $390,000. U.S. spending in Iraq is in the billions - $7.3 billion a month was spent in Iraq in 2009. Mismanagement and waste in Iraq cost $10 billion, according to Congressional hearings in 2007.
None of this is to say we shouldn't be willing to fight wars when we have to. We should. But as I wait with fear and trepidation for my cousin to return, I am convinced we should fight only the ones we have to. Too much is at risk for us to do otherwise.