Scenes in an Airport

“I bet she’s really good at softball.”

I was just thinking to myself, as one does, adrift in my own casual thoughts at the airport, waiting for a flight to another continent.

I was noting her broad shoulders, powerful biceps, and was perhaps unfairly biased in favor of prejudging her softball acumen by her Washington Nationals baseball cap. As she walked by me to her flight to parts unknown, my gaze traveled down, simply hoping to catch a glimpse of what we sure to be thigh-sized calf muscles.

One monstrous calf met expectations, but the other leg surprisingly ended in a metal prosthesis from the knee down, terminating in a brightly colored cross trainer sneaker. Within micro-seconds, my brain struggled to make the transition from “I bet this woman is a power hitter” to “Her leg looks like it is made of part of the Terminator.”

She had a pin on her backpack that said Wounded Warrior Project, and I then went from thinking about her potential softball skills to the staggering human cost of war.

This won’t become a polemic about war, or even the morality of the particular military actions our nation continues to wage. There are plenty of people who truly believe in their heart of hearts that our current wars are “for freedom,” and, hell, the woman with a metal foot may well believe that too. I certainly wasn’t going to ask her if she ever played softball, much less whether she thought it was “worth it” to have a detachable leg.

But a missing limb is in some ways a perfect reminder of what is happening overseas, where proxy armies, private contractors, and robots do so much of the fighting, and where maiming the enemy is often the most that our over-matched armies opponents can hope for. We don’t get to see the bodybags from the wars our taxes fund, but every once in a while, we get to see a hobbled soldier who will get a Purple Heart in exchange for never playing softball again. And for all of the talk about sacrifice every Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the ever-present “just helpin’ the troops” celebrities, we sure do seem to be suffering from collective cultural amnesia about the Walter Reed scandal or the fact that about 3.7% of all veterans experienced homelessness in the five years after leaving the military. Oh, and more than half of all homeless veterans had been diagnosed with a mental disorder before leaving the military, with the rate of diagnosis increasing to more than 80% by the end of the study period in 2010, about twice the incidence rate found among non-homeless veterans.

And those thoughts made me think about the news from recent headlines, that the Air Force is cancelling its conference in Montgomery. Form the 6/5/12 Montgomery Advertiser:

With an eye on a tighter travel budget, the Air Force has canceled its 2012 Information Technology Conference, one of the largest annual gatherings in Montgomery. It’s a decision that is expected to save the government $1.4 million, but it could prove costly for the businesses of the River Region.

The story is shallowly framed as a loss for local economic developers, largely consisting of direct reprints from the Air Force press release. The event allegedly brought more than 5,000 people to town last August. Business owners and the mayor are wringing their hands about the loss, while right wingers are using the cancellation as some sort of proof that Obama is weak on terrorism and likely planning on scaling back the U.S. military to just the Coast Guard.

But there’s no sense that there’s any real perspective about “the largest IT conference within the DoD,” featuring “seminars and demonstrations by government leaders and some of the top figures in the technology industry.” Is this conference crucial to American power projection overseas? According to the Advertiser, “The event has been held annually in Montgomery since 1983, but it was also canceled amid budget concerns in 1985, 1988, 1990, 1991 and 2005.”

And that’s probably important to note: There’s no connection between our city’s (likely temporary) loss of the AFITC and the wounded veterans that are products of our $700 billion-$1 trillion annual military spending. The Air Force may or may not spend $1.4 million in any given year to send a bunch of computer nerds to Montgomery, Alabama. It’s all a drop in a bucket that is too large to even fathom. Except maybe when you put a human face on things and maybe make a fast and incorrect assumption about someone based on a baseball cap and a set of powerful-looking shoulders.

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