War rages. Soldiers suffer. America sleeps.

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How is it possible for a country to be at war on two fronts for nearly a decade and not be plunged into constant fits of epic soul-searching? Whatever trick of light makes it possible to pretend "We, the People" have nothing to do with wars waged in our name overseas also blinds us to its tragic legacies at home.

In a little more than two weeks, a nation suffering from willful amnesia about Iraq and Afghanistan will either vote for new representatives who share their myopia -- or retain those incumbents most skilled at exploiting it.

If polls are to be believed, these wars are too low on the list of voter priorities to prompt much turnout on Election Day. Although more than a trillion dollars has been spent on the wars, that's an unthinkable abstraction to the vast majority of us.

If we could see it as the most obscene example of the hijacking and theft of government revenue in American history, there would be historically high turnouts in the midterms and for every election after that for at least a generation.

There would be such bipartisan rage over the sheer magnitude of waste, fraud, erosion of American economic power and loss of life caused by these wars that the most outrageous tea party protests would look dignified in comparison.

Instead, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might as well be taking place on Pluto as far as "We, the People" are concerned. We don't want to think about immensely complicated military adventures that kill thousands of civilians and soldiers annually, destroy national infrastructure and perpetuate the power of corrupt and unstable regimes.

We leave it to the president, the Congress and the military-industrial complex to sort out the details of that unpleasant business. Meanwhile, we reflexively salute "the heroes" -- the men and women of our volunteer military who carry the weight of these conflicts on their battered bodies and crushed psyches.

By calling the men and women in uniform "heroes," we simultaneously absolve ourselves of responsibility to preserve and defend our democratic values. We're not "heroes," we tell ourselves in the middle of the night. That's a burden best left to people with a higher tolerance for the prospect of imminent death and dismemberment.

While less than 1 percent of the population does the heavy lifting in our tragically expensive, but invisible, wars, the rest of us can celebrate our freedoms by rushing to the theaters to make "Jackass 3D" the No. 1 movie in America. Yes, we're doing our part for the war effort by remaining as stupid and morally unperturbed as possible.

On Sunday, "60 Minutes" broadcast a report on homeless American veterans that should make even the most indifferent among us blush from the weight of accumulated shame and ignorance.

"60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley attended "Stand Down," an annual three-day military-style campout at a San Diego high school athletic field near Camp Pendleton. When psychologist and Vietnam War vet Jon Nachison and his colleague Robert van Keuren started "Stand Down" 23 years ago, it was designed to rehabilitate drug-addicted, psychologically battered and homeless Vietnam veterans. It is part health clinic, job fair and entry-way to whatever 12-step program the soldier needs.

The majority of the nearly 1,000 vets who turned to "Stand Down" this summer were men and women who weren't alive when the Vietnam War ended. "This group is becoming homeless quicker than the Vietnam veteran," Mr. Nachison told Mr. Pelley.

"Vietnam vets came back. It took about eight to 10 years before we started really seeing them on the street homeless. This group is coming back and within a year they're ending up on the street. And my best hunch is that for many of them it's these redeployments again and again," he said.

"60 Minutes" interviewed a range of homeless veterans, from an Army medic who served this country in the 1980s to a homeless young Marine veteran of Iraq who would willingly fake a drug addiction just to have a roof over his head. One sailor told of losing her marriage and child because of her addiction to meth and alcohol.

Unemployment among returning vets is twice the national average. Over the past decade, more than 800,000 troops have been deployed to combat. Multiple deployments scar these veterans in unimaginable ways.

That there is a single homeless soldier in America should provoke national outrage, but it doesn't because these vets and the wars they fight are invisible. Al-Qaida isn't throwing these warriors to the street. "We, the People" are the culprits.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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