Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Marilou Johanek

Public reaction to Libyan attack is muted

PRESIDENT Obama has drawn the U.S. military into yet another armed conflict without fear of Americans taking to the streets in opposition. They may agree or disagree with the logic of the administration cherry-picking its military interventions in Middle East uprisings, but, for the most part, it doesn't affect them.

Even the outrageous military tab for simultaneously supporting three wars doesn't faze people anymore. We're so over our head in debt, what's another $100 million a day in Libya? The disconnect between U.S. citizens and U.S. forces fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, has been dissected.

But launching a questionable military offensive in Libya brings the division to the fore in real political terms. The President decided to intervene in the Libyan revolt, as opposed to the unrest and violence in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere, because the political risk was acceptable.

He authorized an undefined mission, absent contingency plans, objectives, or an endgame (sound familiar?), because he knew Americans, in general, wouldn't respond with fist-pounding dismay. As long as the administration emphasized that no ground troops would be deployed against the targeted regime, just shock and Tomahawk missiles, the move would be politically feasible.

Americans would rationalize that committing fighter jets and other warplanes, to thwart what was presented as a humanitarian threat to Libyan rebels, wasn't particularly dangerous. The crash of a U.S. fighter jet Monday threw a wrench into that argument, but Mr. Obama didn't appear overly concerned with his new military offensive as he traveled with his family in Latin America.

His repeated assurances of limited U.S. military involvement in Libya sent a message that the conflict would be over before you could say Operation Odyssey Dawn. Sort of like the United States would be in and out of Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein's regime, and home in a jiffy after chasing al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan.

That was eight years ago and counting in Iraq, and 10 years going on 11 in Afghanistan. That was about 6,000 American casualties ago. But tragic as those deaths were for families, friends, and colleagues of the fallen soldiers, most Americans never experienced the true measure of those losses.

They don't know anyone deployed or serving in the military. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has been front-page news for a long time. We've gotten used to the suicide bombings, counterattacks, and resilient insurgencies.

Let the U.S. deadline for leaving Libya drag on and watch the same cultural numbness set in among Americans.

I wonder what Lt. Gen. John Kelly would say.

He was the first person I thought of after the President's Libya attack began. The most senior U.S. military officer to lose a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan was profiled in a poignant Washington Post article this month.

He had given a speech in St. Louis in November, four days after learning that his son had stepped on a land mine in southern Afghanistan and was killed instantly. But he didn't want sympathy from his audience, or even a mention of his son by the Marine Corps officer who introduced him.

What the general wanted was to touch a nerve, to remind America that it was still at war, that young soldiers were still being robbed of their innocence, their limbs, and even their lives. Before a crowd of former Marines and business people he said: "We are in a life-and-death struggle, but not our whole country."

Not by a long shot. The public is largely unaware of the service to and sacrifice for country that is given by a relatively small number of American families. During one of the most protracted periods of sustained combat in American history, fewer than 1 percent of the population serves in uniform.

Most people don't live with the pain of lengthy separation when a loved one is deployed on multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most don't live with the constant foreboding of what each day in a distant conflict could bring.

For Lt. Gen. Kelly, it brought death to his son, who was leading a Marine platoon in Afghanistan. No doubt a father's heartache fueled his passion and fury last fall when he spoke about the nation's casual indifference toward its warriors.

The danger in creeping public aloofness to combat involving U.S. troops is evident in America's Libyan adventure.

Politicians are free to use the military recklessly, knowing a country that can't relate won't react.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

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