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The Costs of War: Missing in Action

vietnam veteran

vietnam veteran

Social workers invariably cite values such as social justice, inclusiveness, and respect for self-determination when advocating for domestic needs such as health care and other issues. What is missing from the agenda is an effort to address the costs of war that rob domestic programs of their full potential.

This is not necessarily a partisan issue. Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

Martin Luther King, Jr., added:

"And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

As I cite these quotations, I am mindful that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) voted to abolish the Peace and Social Justice Committee (P&SJC) in 2002. As someone who was disappointed by this decision, I joined other social workers who circulated and signed a petition to reinstate this committee. NASW did form a Social and Economic Justice and Peace Section as well as an online Peace Policy Toolkit to replace the P&SJC. However, in my view, these measures are merely a shadow of the former committee. The Section, for example, is not open to the total membership of NASW but rather is limited to members who pay a $35 annual fee. I recognize that NASW has limited resources and that other, more specialized, organizations may be better equipped to address such issues in some respects. However, I remain chagrined by this action. What will future generations think about us for diluting—if not dodging—this defining issue of our time?

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In the first place, a 145,000-member organization with training in such areas as crisis intervention, emergency response to trauma victims, as well as in social policy and community organization, should have sufficient skills and a unique perspective to make a contribution to the struggle for peace.

Secondly, whether one looks at the work of Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and his co-author, Linda Bilmes, on the real costs of the war or at our own Frances Fox Piven’s work The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush’s Militarism, it is clear that not only the direct costs but also the hidden costs of war are highly significant. Some examples include future medical and psychiatric care, suicides of veterans, family disruption, and many other future costs, including financial burdens blithely passed on to future generations. Moreover, we work in domestic arenas. Knowledge of he effects of war and trauma from a civilian perspective is critical to job performance in social work, regardless of one’s views about a particular war.

Finally, as Norman Solomon has noted, in urban communities the war has already used more federal tax dollars that could otherwise have provided complete health care for everyone in an entire year. “Statewide, in California, taxpayers have anted up more than $66 billion to directly pay for the war in Iraq.” We have the technology to estimate—at a local level—the real costs of war, and should and must do so.

In closing, I think it is shameful that NASW—along with the Democratic Party—has not given a full-throated endorsement of single-payer health care as well as support for the Iraqis’ call for an end to the occupation and self-determination, a central ethical foundation of NASW. Having stated this concern over the Democratic Party’s position, I would add and emphasize that the Republican alternative of perpetual war with no option of diplomacy is far, far worse. In any case, the refusal to document the real, hidden costs of war by NASW and both major political parties (excluding Progressive Democrats) is tantamount to a state of denial.

Gene Rothman

Gene Rothman, DSW, LCSW, is a retired social worker who worked with homeless and incarcerated veterans in the latter part of his career. He is active with Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles (PDLA) and Families to Amend Three Strikes (FACTS.) He also writes an occasional monthly editorial for the Social Action/Social Justice Council published in the “NASW California News.” The opinions expressed here are his alone.

Gene Rothman published this article in the NASW California News (November-December, 2008 under the auspices of the Social Action/Social Justice Council of NASW. The author acknowledges the assistance of social workers nationwide for their efforts to reinstate the Peace and Social Justice Committee many of whom contributed to this essay.