BY BRUCE CARRUTHERS
On Sept. 21, the world observes an International Day of Peace, initiated by the United Nations 40 years ago. This will be the 12th year that Asheville has joined others on the planet in solidarity, hoping that someday, peace may prevail on Earth. Even amid Western North Carolina’s stunning beauty, we can’t help but consider the tragic events in Afghanistan, the pointless sacrifices made by local military personnel and the incalculable suffering inflicted on noncombatants.
By the most conservative estimates, 71,000 civilians have perished in Afghanistan in two decades of war, along with an equivalent number of Afghan military personnel, and there are an estimated 2.5 million Afghan refugees worldwide.
North Carolina ranks high on the list of states with the most military deaths, particularly in proportion to the state’s population. But deaths don’t tell the whole story. In the post-9/11 wars, more than 50,000 U.S. military personnel have been officially listed as wounded, and thousands still suffer from the effects of exposure to toxic burn pits, traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, sexual trauma, moral injury and other conditions related to serving in a combat zone. Meanwhile, more than 30,000 veterans and active-duty military have taken their own lives since the beginning of the war on terror. Four times as many military personnel and veterans have died by their own hand as have died from combat. Suicides among North Carolina veterans are nearly 40% higher than among civilians.
The war at home
Homelessness is a national problem, but for veterans in our area, it’s especially acute. According to Homeward Bound, a local nonprofit working to end homelessness, 40% of Buncombe County’s homeless folks are veterans, compared with 11% nationwide. Many of them suffer from effects of the militarization of our foreign policy. They’ve served in our endless wars, and they find the adjustment to civilian life overwhelming. In many ways, only fellow veterans can understand the trauma of military service and what the nation’s constant war-making does to the young men and women of Western North Carolina and the country as a whole.
Local veterans are fortunate to have access to the award-winning Charles George VA Medical Center. In 2018, it served over 47,000 WNC veterans, providing over 300,000 outpatient visits, 8,500 emergency room visits and nearly 1,000 hospital admissions. Those statistics drive home the human cost of our military “adventures.” Veterans have earned the care the Charles George affords them, but how much better would it be if we pursued peace and didn’t ask our citizens to participate in military actions the world over?
According to some accounts, the U.S. has nearly 800 overseas military bases spread across five continents, at an annual cost of $85 billion to $100 billion. Imagine if those resources and the cost of veterans’ care were directed to addressing the very real problems we face both nationally and across North Carolina, including right here. In some Tar Heel counties, child poverty rates are around 40%, and with few exceptions, the rates in WNC counties exceed the national average. Shouldn’t lifting our children from poverty be one of our highest priorities?
What have Ashevilleans learned from all this? Do we at last we see the futility and tragedy of war? Our terrible technological instruments of destruction, some of which include parts made here in Buncombe County, have killed tens of thousands of men, women and children, wounded countless more and created millions of refugees. And unless we cease fighting such wars, those numbers will only continue to rise once Pratt & Whitney makes its footprint along the ancient French Broad River.
Meanwhile, thousands of U.S. veterans, many of them our sons and daughters here in Western North Carolina, will suffer from physical and psychological injuries for the rest of their lives.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have each cost at least $2 trillion, and if you factor in the interest charges and the cost of caring for those veterans, it could add trillions more. For the current fiscal year alone, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ budget is $240 billion.
Just consider how that money could have been used to directly benefit our fellow citizens. WNC residents need health insurance, education and job training, and our region continues to see rapid growth, putting increasing pressure on a health care system that’s already grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic. Our infrastructure is decaying, while efforts to create sustainable, renewable energy seem stalled.
Just say no to permanent war
Have we in here in WNC learned anything from our failed wars in the Middle East and our endless military interventions in other nations? Will we and our fellow citizens nationwide finally grasp the limits and failure of military power?
After our debacle in Vietnam, I felt certain that the U.S. had learned its lesson and would henceforth turn to diplomacy instead of war to solve problems. But I was wrong: Within just a few short years, my country was again engaged in pointless and destructive wars that have brought us and the citizens of the countries we’ve invaded and occupied nothing but injury, death and destruction.
Will we learn from the failure in Afghanistan, or will we continue on the same path? This is a central question, both for us and for our children’s and grandchildren’s futures. According to nationalpriorities.org, North Carolina taxpayers are spending $16.23 billion on the military in 2021 alone. Just imagine if that money were directed toward addressing the local impacts of our biggest enemy: global climate change.
I invite you to consider these questions during this year’s International Day of Peace — and to join us in working toward the day when peace will indeed prevail, as the Peace Pole in downtown Asheville’s Elder and Sage Community Garden reminds us in English, Korean, Spanish and Cherokee. We’ll meet via Zoom at noon Tuesday, Sept. 21.
Bruce Carruthers is a Vietnam veteran and retired Veterans Affairs employee. A member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 099, he lives in Waynesville. For more information, visit WNC4Peace’s Facebook page.