Keelan: Two lost wars — Part I

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Don Keelan, a certified public accountant and resident of Arlington. The piece first appeared in the Bennington Banner.

On Dec. 3, the Wall Street Journal noted, “Conventional wisdom is that Latin America is shifting away from U.S.-backed war on drugs. In April, longtime U.S. drug allies such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos used the annual Summit of the Americas to call the U.S.’s 40-year Latin American drug war a failure …”

Over the last 100 years, America has been engaged in eight wars. Two of them, World Wars I & II, had clear endings — we were victorious. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan successful or not-so-successful conclusions, I will defer to the military and political historians.

However, among the eight wars, there are two we have definitely lost — the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty — the longest-fought wars America has ever been involved with. The War on Drugs had its official beginnings under President Nixon, in 1971. Albeit, the U.S. was deeply involved in attempting to eradicate illegal drugs decades earlier.

Also, similar to other wars the War on Drugs has produced its share of “casualties.” In this case, they are physically, mentally, emotionally and financially wounded — the drug users and their families.

Not unlike any other war, the War on Drugs has had tens of thousands of deaths. Mexico, a major arena for the movement of drugs in the past six years, has had 63,000 killings directly related to the drug trade — a statistic greater than that of U.S. military personnel killed in Vietnam or the Korean War.

Also, similar to other wars the War on Drugs has produced its share of “casualties.” In this case, they are physically, mentally, emotionally and financially wounded — the drug users and their families.

The cost in national, state and local treasure in combating this war is in the hundreds of billions. This figure does not take into account the cost of arresting, bringing to trial and the ultimate incarceration of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who helped perpetuate this war.

For years, Vermonters paid little attention to the War on Drugs — it was being fought elsewhere — not here. But here it is — being waged in every city and town — manifesting itself in robberies, residential, business and drugstore invasions. Leaving one’s home or car unlocked is a thing of the past. The illegal drug infestation has changed this once bucolic state. We mirror the rest of the country — on cost, casualties and incarcerations. The majority of those detained in the Vermont’s prison system are in fact incarcerated due to drug-related (and alcohol-related) crimes.

But it is not just one war we have lost it is two — the other, the War on Poverty, has lasted even longer — its declaration came from President Johnson, in 1964.

This war does not have big ships or planes engaged — it has programs — such as Food Stamps, Vista, Head Start and Community Action. It also has its equivalent to the Defense Department. The Office of Economic Opportunity — created in the late 1960s (it has since been folded into other agencies).

The casualties from this war continue to mount exponentially. One statistic alone speaks volumes: There are now upwards to 47 million Americans enrolled in the Food Stamp program — up from approximately 25 million just a few years ago. The number of Americans receiving Medicaid, fuel and housing subsidence has reached all-time highs.

Not unlike the War on Drugs, this war is being waged daily throughout Vermont. In Windham and Windsor counties alone, Southeastern Vermont Community Action recently reported:
“1,475 households received fuel assistance. 5,815 people received services from Family Services Case Workers; 238 households obtained free clothing and furniture…”

What is of even more astonishing is the fact that during the recent presidential campaign, so little was mentioned about either war, by President Obama or Gov. Romney. Why talk about losing propositions — their focus was solely on the middle class and the wealthy.

It would seem like the politicians had taken a page out of the late Sen. George Aiken’s book, commenting on extracting America from Vietnam, “Let’s just declare victory and bring the troops home.”

The recently held Vermont Democratic legislative caucus has established its priorities for the upcoming legislative session — focus on climate control, agriculture and heating fuels — propane and oil.

Is it possible that our elected leaders have given up on the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty? And if so, where does that leave us here in Vermont as the impact from both wars tears away at our basic fabric?

To be continued.

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