WHEN SERGEANT LIAM DWYER of Connecticut trod on a booby-trapped bomb in southern Afghanistan the explosion could be heard 13 miles away. It blew off his left leg, much of his right one, left his left arm “hanging by threads” and smashed his right arm. “I’m bleeding out and about to die,” he recalls thinking before he blacked out. His field-medic turned away to work on lesser casualties. But another marine sergeant clapped tourniquets on what remained of Mr Dwyer and hauled him to a helicopter. A week later, after round-the-clock treatment by American and British medics in Afghanistan, Germany and on many aircraft, he awoke at Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre. His parents were by his bed. Thinking he was still on the battlefield, Mr Dwyer lunged forwards to try to protect them.
Eight years later he was back at Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland—and life was great, he told your columnist. He had some gripes, to be sure: including incessant operations (he has had “well over 60”), the impossibility of holding down a regular job because of his treatment and a terror of undoing years of painful therapy by slipping in the shower. On the other hand he was a big fan of his new prosthetic leg, which had been embedded in his femur: he would “recommend osseointegration to anyone,” he said. Indeed he was “looking forward to getting his right leg amputated” too, maybe a decade from now.
He was reluctant to get it done sooner only because he still needed the painfully damaged limb for his work as a racing-car driver with Mazda, for which he also gave thanks. And he loved his wife, an occupational therapist he had met at Walter Reed. “I had this positive outlook from the get-go,” he said. “If there’s something out there that you want to do, you can either be a pioneer or else find someone who can help you out with it. When you have a negative attitude, no one wants to be around you, which starts screwing with your mind. A lot of guys have issues with that.”
Media coverage of the participants in America’s interminable 9/11 wars tends to focus on the health and social problems many face. Of the 2.7m who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, 35% are said by the Department of Veterans Affairs to have a disability. That includes many with post-traumatic stress, which makes sense: patrolling built-up areas of Iraq at the height of its violence was especially horrific. And the concussive effects of blast injuries are liable to be long-term. Yet such figures may be misleading.
Many disability claims on the VA are alleged to be exaggerated or distantly related to military service. And other indicators of veterans’ well-being are more reassuring. Only 3.8% of post-9/11 veterans are unemployed, scarcely more than the general populace. Moreover, the number of soldiers officially counted as wounded-in-action in Iraq and Afghanistan is only 53,000 (2% of the total who served). And around half, having minor injuries, returned to the fray within 72 hours. Almost two decades of war by America’s million-odd troops, waged against an enemy heavily reliant on roadside bombs, has produced around 2,000 amputees. And that surprisingly low number is despite a revolution in the survival rate of badly wounded soldiers. The Department of Defence estimates the improved tourniquet that saved Mr Dwyer was alone responsible for saving 3,000 lives—roughly half the total American death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Other breakthroughs at every stage of the military medical process, from use of psychotherapy to computerised prosthetics, have meanwhile improved the long-term outlook for severely wounded vets like Mr Dwyer. Notwithstanding the well-advertised problems at the VA, they cannot doubt the government has their back—or that society does, given the thousands of veterans’ groups that have mushroomed. “I hate to see any veteran struggling, but I have to ask, have you asked for help? Because it’s out there,” said another Walter Reed outpatient, Captain Ferris Butler, who lost his feet to an improvised bomb south of Baghdad in 2006. Unlike Mr Dwyer he admits to having been haunted by demons after his injury. But like him he met his wife at Walter Reed, has proceeded from one success to the next—in business, philanthropy and sport—and exudes positivity and derring-do.
As Americans approach what may be the last Veterans Day of the war in Afghanistan, their longest ever, they may console themselves with this thought. Contrary to the reported inundation of damaged post-9/11 veterans, their country has been remarkably unscathed by two decades at war. Iraq and Afghanistan vets represent much less than 1% of the population. America lost eight times as many soldiers in Vietnam, in less than half the time, when its population was two-thirds the current size. The number of recent wounded is correspondingly modest and most have been looked after with immense skill and no expense spared, as is right. Otherwise, few Americans have been touched by the conflicts at all.
Who pays the piper?
Future generations will pay for them: the wars have been funded by debt. Most Americans have had little reason to think their country is even at war. And lucky them because war is hell. But this disconnect helps explain why the country’s civil-military relations are as distant as they are. It also helps explain how America came to be locked in such long and largely unproductive conflicts in the first place. Its voters started to reckon with the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam war—then demand accountability for it—only after they felt its sting. By contrast Donald Trump, who almost alone among national politicians decries the latest conflicts, has struggled to interest voters in them—or indeed end them.
Though mostly wrong on the details, the president raises an important question of the long wars. What have they achieved? After thanking Mr Butler and Mr Dwyer for their service on Veterans Day (a ritual neither wounded man greatly enjoys, incidentally), their well-wishers might want to ponder that.■