American Debt and Troops’ Morale

              The American economy just had a near death experience. As the world watched with bated breath and the stock exchanges the world over prepared to handle the inevitable fallouts, the most powerful country in the world teetered on the verge of default. Over the years the US national debt has mounted to a staggering 14.2 trillion dollars – A sum that is nearly equivalent to 97 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This condition prompted the revision of its credit ratings to negative for the first time in its history.  Interestingly the United States Government (USG) has had public debt since its inception but it had been able to pay it off during the surplus years but it always borrowed more in times of wars and other emergencies. This includes the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and in the 1980’s as the US pumped in money to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and other parts of the world during the final days of the Cold War. The increase in the American national debt has been phenomenal as it became embroiled in foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the gross public debt increased from $5.7 trillion in January 2001 to $10.7 trillion by December 2008. Under President Barack Obama, it further increased from $10.7 trillion to $14.2 trillion by February 2011. Although a last minute deal between the Democrats and Republicans has averted a default, it is still too early to predict how the present crisis is going to inter alia affect its defence spending and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

            One point that went completely unnoticed in the debate on the financial implications of the impact it is having on the troops’ morale. As the fractious battle raged on the Capitol Hill and Obama desperately tried to settle for a compromise deal over raising the debt ceiling with Republican Party’s Senate Majority leader John Boehner, the troops in Afghanistan, fighting America’s longest overseas War worried about their next pay check. The question whether they would be getting their pay in time was popped to the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen as he talked to them in a townhouse type gathering in Camp Leatherneck in Kandahar on July 29. “I actually don’t know the answer to that question,” was Mullen’s frank reply. He, however, dispelled the possibility of immediate layoffs and assured that they would continue to go to work each day. “I have confidence that at some point in time, whatever compensation you are owed, you will be given.” He noted, “There are plenty of you living paycheck to paycheck so if paychecks were stopped it would have a devastating impact very quickly.” The troops were not easily mollified. They wanted Mullen to tell them how much the Pentagon was spending on private contractors, when many tasks could be performed by members of the military. They questioned whether the budget pressures will focus on pay or equipment and other acquisitions. They bemoaned what it could cost to implement the new policy repealing the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military; and they wondered if their retirement pay was safe. For his part, Mullen said the cost of repealing the gay ban was very limited and that there were no immediate plans to affect their retirement benefits. Only a few bothered to question Mullen about military strategy or the planned withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which is beginning with a 10,000 drawdown by the end of this year. Instead, it was all about money and jobs. Mullen warned the troops that as time goes on, budget restrictions will pare down the size of the military, and that they should keep this in mind as they pursue their education and try to re-enlist or further their careers in the military. In the end, he referred their questions back to Capitol Hill. Asked whether Congress members would cut their own benefits if they acted to cut military pay, he evoked laughter when he recommended the troops e-mail their representatives with that query: “They’re the ones that can answer that particular question.”

            Each war has left its marks on the American men and women, who had been pressed into service. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been one of the most widely reported condition by veterans of foreign wars. Many soldiers of the Vietnam War suffered the residual effects of chemical weapons like Agent Orange. Those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq will face the challenge of resurrecting their lives in a time of financial hardship, as the US national debt balloons instead of contracting.

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