December 28, 2009

Afghanistan & Heroin: Unmentioned Costs Of War

[This summer, I had several conversations with Zach Rudes, a very perceptive young writer, on the heroin epidemic in NW Connecticut, where high school students report that it's easier to score than marijuana! At my urging, Zach wrote this piece for Fire on the Mountain. He has crossposted it at his own blog, And Just Like That I Became A Pseudo-Journalist, which I recommend for your perusal.]

by Zach Rudes

President Obama's recent decision to send tens of thousands of additional American troops into Afghanistan got a lot of people talking. Suddenly, I was hearing questions being asked that should have been asked years ago. Some people wondered, "How much money is this going to cost?". Some people asked, "Do we really need to send over 30,000 more soldiers?" Others questioned, many for the first time, the need to fight this war in the first place.

Others were more occupied with the question "How many American lives is this costing us?" A quick internet search shows that something to the tune of 900 American soldiers have been killed since the start of the war in 2001. While 900 dead soldiers is 900 too many, I think the actual tally of lives lost is much much higher.

Quick! How many heroin users can you name off the top of your head? I can easily rattle off a dozen without taking a breath, all from the lovely rural northwest corner of Connecticut. And those dozen or so are just the tip of the iceberg. So where is this ruiner of lives coming from?You guessed it, folks. Well over 90% of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan. Before the war, our extremist friends put the 'ban' in Taliban and made the cultivation of poppies illegal. Heroin production plummeted.

But then, much to the relief of Afghanistan's poppy farmers, corrupt officials, and anyone else who could get in on a piece of the poppy pie, the Americans came, dismantled the regime, and production once again surged.

What a strange situation. Let's look at a hypothetical example of how this could play out.
Step 1: War is declared.
Step 2: A taxpayer's money is used to fight a war.
Step 3: The war allows massive poppy cultivation to be restored.
Step 4: Excellent quality heroin floods parts of America, namely the Northeast.
Step 5: Taxpayer's child becomes a raging addict.
Step 6: Addict commits a petty crime spending more taxpayer money on judicial and incarceration costs (mom and dad can pick up the rehab bill)
Step 7: Vicious cycle of heroin addiction leads to life of incarceration at great cost to taxpayers and eventually death due to AIDS or health consequences.

Of course, not every person who tries Afghan heroin will spend their lives in jail until they die prematurely. All too many will, however. In addition to the user, heroin addiction takes a gigantic toll on friends, families, and communities. Those involved pay for heroin addiction in grief, money, time, and loss of life.

But just how many lives are lost? We just don't know. No government agency releases numbers on exactly how many fatal heroin overdoses occur each year in America. And even if we had that figure, how could we possibly account for all the dreams shattered, friendships broken, or families destroyed? How could we tally the total amount of property value lost in towns where heroin use has spooked potential homeowners? How many people die from AIDS complications who contracted HIV from sharing needles? I could ask a hundred questions like this.

But I have the sneaking suspicion these types of questions aren't being asked enough by the United States government. When Obama went strolling through Arlington on a soul search about the loss of life in times of war, I wonder if it occurred to him to take another walk through D.C.'s most heroin-inflicted neighborhoods to see the true magnitude of his decisions.

The heroin question pops up from time to time in newspaper articles, but for my little corner of Connecticut, it is an epidemic that cannot afford to be ignored. Many people in small towns in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or New York State would agree with me. Others in cities like Hartford, Providence, or Baltimore could certainly say the same.

Political analysts like to talk about our disconnect from war and how removed we are from the reality of war. I'm calling bullshit. This war is everywhere. It is in your smashed car window, in your empty jewelry box, in your prison, and in your local emergency room.

So how much is this war costing in terms of human life?

The answer is simple. It's just like determining how many anti-war protestors march on Washington. You take the official estimate and you add many many many more.

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