WASHINGTON — It’s hard to take Congressman Ron Paul, perpetual presidential candidate, seriously. The Texas Republican is a committed libertarian — which means he doesn’t think government should do much of anything.
But his anti-war views and his attacks on military spending are beginning to resonate even among the GOP base, a constituency that prides itself on a muscular patriotism.
Their hawkishness is waning as Americans come to understand, once again, that war is costly.
You wouldn’t think that lesson would have had to be re-learned, but it did. For a decade after 9/11, Americans managed to ignore the costs of our military adventures — the profligate spending as well as the lost and tragically altered lives.
The national denial was greatly assisted by the rise of the highly-skilled, all-volunteer Armed Forces, staffed largely by working-class men and women without many professional options. It was easy for those of us without family members or close friends in combat to forget about the dangers associated with the nation’s aggressive strategy of national defense.
I remember the costs of war whenever I visit my mom in my hard-pressed Alabama hometown, where the textile mills are closing and the timber industry is consolidating and downsizing. It’s a part of America that contributes heavily to the nation’s defense, so my mom’s minister usually offers up a prayer for those who are serving. It’s no abstract ritual: many church members have brothers or daughters or grandchildren in uniform.
In wealthier precincts, though, voters could vigorously support the invasion of Iraq with little in the way of personal cost. As an early opponent of George W. Bush’s ill-advised war against Saddam Hussein, I remember the doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs who accused me of various forms of disloyalty to God and country. All the while, their sons and daughters were safely ensconced in their pre-wealth careers.
They weren’t concerned with the staggering billions that Bush’s invasion was costing the nation’s treasury, either. The president had refused to raise taxes to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan, a decision that contributed to the illusion of painlessness. (It has also contributed substantially to the deficit.)
Indeed, after jihadists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush encouraged Americans to “enjoy life. . Get down to Disney World,” he said.
That was so much more pleasant than the sacrifices demanded on the home front during World War II, when Americans were given rationing coupons for sugar, coffee and gasoline. So we were happy to do our part as as good Americans — shopping, eating out, vacationing.
But the notion of a war without costs had to come crashing down sooner or later — and now it has. As we struggle with joblessness, foreclosures and a massive federal debt, we remember: some wars are worth the paying and the dying, but none come with steep discounts.
Last month, in a little noticed vote, 28 Republicans, including three who serve on the House Armed Services Committee, joined House Democrats attempting to force President Barack Obama to draw down troops from Afghanistan even faster than he has pledged. The amendment failed, but its sponsors will likely bring it back in a few months.
Who can blame them? The invasion of Afghanistan was justified to rout the Taliban, which had given shelter to Osama bin Laden and his band of terrorists. But a decade later, with bin Laden buried at sea, there is little reason to continue a costly effort to build democracy in a corrupt, tribal corner of the world.
That’s especially true when Congress is reluctant to extend unemployment benefits to jobless workers or to bail out financially-battered states or to rebuild our decaying bridges and aging railbeds. The cost of Afghanistan — about $8 billion a month — is clearly more than we can afford.
Some arm-chair hawks like Dick Cheney and John Bolton will, of course, continue to insist on waging wars and sending other people’s children to die in them. But most Americans have learned that the bill eventually comes due.