Why Afghanistan Became an Invisible War







Total number of American veterans and troops

U.S. troop levels and

living veterans

for each war

20 million

Number of U.S.

troops that served

in each war

Number of living

World War II veterans over time

Korea veterans

World War I

veterans

Vietnam veterans

Vietnam

2.7

WWI

4.7 million

Persian Gulf

0.7

Afghanistan

0.5

U.S. troop levels and

living veterans

for each war

Total number of American troops and veterans

over time

20 million

Number of

U.S. troops

that served

in each war

Number of living

World War II veterans over time

Korea veterans

World War I

veterans

Vietnam veterans

Vietnam

2.7

WWI

4.7 million

Persian Gulf

0.7

Afghanistan

0.5

U.S. troop levels and

living veterans

for each war

Number of American troops and veterans

20 million

U.S. troops that

served in each war

Number of living

WWII veterans over time

Vietnam

2.7

Afghanistan

0.5

Total number of American troops and veterans

U.S. troop levels and

living veterans for each war

20 million

Number of U.S. troops

that served in each war

Number of living

World War II veterans over time

Korea veterans

World War I veterans

Vietnam veterans

WWI

4.7 million

Vietnam

2.7

Persian Gulf

0.7

Afghanistan

0.5

Sources: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs; Watson Institute Costs of War Project

In a century of American wars, no other has been rendered quite so invisible to the public. Americans don’t want to fight in Afghanistan, they don’t want to die in Afghanistan and they don’t really want to hear about Afghanistan.

Why? This war is different.

Fewer Soldiers, Fewer Veterans

Fewer American soldiers have fought in Afghanistan than any American war in the last century. At most, about 12,000 American soldiers remain there and a total of about 600,000 have rotated through there over 18 years.

That number is less than a quarter of the number who fought in Vietnam and about half the number who went to Iraq, where more soldiers fought and died in less than half of the time, increasing the visibility of their sacrifices.

Fewer troops serving means fewer veterans. Even today, the number of veterans still alive from World War II and the Vietnam War each exceed the number of Afghan war veterans.

That matters because living veterans are a potent lobbying force in keeping a war alive in the public consciousness. As the number of living veterans declined after 1946, the American sense of the presence of war as measured by veterans has steadily diminished.

In the years immediately after World War II, 15 percent of the population had recently returned from a war. Today, it is about 2 percent.

Minimizing Casualties

A big contributor to rendering the Afghanistan war invisible has been the success at minimizing deaths, particularly military deaths.


Civilian and U.S. military casualties by war





405U.S. soldiers killed, in thousands

671 — U.S. soldiers wounded

40,000

Civilian

casualties,

in thousands

World War I

World War II

Afghanistan

40,000

Total civilian

casualties,

in thousands

World War I

World War II

58 U.S. soldiers killed,

in thousands

304 — U.S. soldiers

Afghanistan

40,000

Total civilian

casualties,

in thousands

World War I

World War II

58 U.S. soldiers killed,

in thousands

304 — U.S. soldiers

Afghanistan

Casualty figures are estimates. Sources: Congressional Budget Office; U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs

A series of new military medical protocols — honed by experience in the last couple of wars and by highly advanced battlefield trauma techniques and rapid medevac capacity — has created the concept of “the golden hour.”

“The golden hour” has been astoundingly successful in saving soldiers’ lives. It emphasizes getting a wounded soldier to a trauma care facility within an hour, and immediate first aid to keep a soldier alive for that long. The result has been so successful that an American soldier was more than five times as likely to be killed in each of the first four wars of the last century than in Afghanistan.

The United States has killed civilians throughout the war, something even Afghan allies have criticized. But far fewer civilians have died in Afghanistan than in any previous war involving American forces.

A Smaller Portion of Military Spending

Afghanistan has been every bit as expensive as any war in the last 75 years, with the exception of World War II. The United States has spent about $2 trillion over 18 years — more than $100 billion a year.

But that amount is dwarfed by the overall defense budget during that period. Military spending has continued to rise, nearing its levels during World War II, even as the U.S. has reduced its involvement in Afghanistan.


U.S. yearly war-related and total defense spending





$600 billion

$523 billion

total defense

spending in 2017

Other defense

spending

$27 billion

spending on

Afghanistan

in 2017

Persian Gulf

Afghanistan

$600

billion

$523 billion

total defense

spending

in 2017

Other

defense

spending

$27 billion

spending on

Afghanistan

in 2017

Afghanistan

$600

billion

$523 billion

total defense

spending

in 2017

Other

defense

spending

$27 billion

spending on

Afghanistan

in 2017

Afghanistan

$600 billion

$523 billion

total defense spending

in 2017

Other defense spending

$27 billion

spending on Afghanistan

in 2017

Persian Gulf

Afghanistan

Data are adjusted for inflation and in 2018 dollars. · Sources: U.S. Dept. of Defense; Congressional Research Service; Watson Institute Costs of War Project

Much of that money has gone to expensive showcase, high-tech projects — popular with communities back home where they create jobs — like the $400 billion F-35. And foreign policy priorities have shifted to the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea, each demanding expensive naval commitments, at a time when both China and Russia are also spending heavily on projecting power and influence in new regions.

Fewer Headlines

Despite the costs, the war in Afghanistan has mostly remained in the back of the nation’s consciousness. In recent years, war was the subject of fewer front-page stories in The New York Times than any other war since World War I. After an initial spike in coverage following the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan rarely appeared more than once a week on the front page.


Yearly war-related front-page headlines




75 headlines

Afghanistan

75 headlines

Afghanistan

75 headlines

Afghanistan

75 headlines

Afghanistan

The decline in coverage is not just on The Times’s front page. Other news organizations have also covered Afghanistan less, a product of the war’s length and the public’s declining interest. Many news organizations downsized their foreign bureaus in Kabul as the war continued, and most have fewer reporters there than The Times.

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