Your Money at War

By Kristin Henderson, the author of “While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Home Front” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 09/02/07):

EVERY morning that my husband was in a war zone, whether it was Afghanistan or Iraq, I woke up knowing that today could be the day my world might end. He’s a Navy chaplain, but when he’s convoying with the Marines, hunkering down with them under fire, he is as exposed as they are. Even those tucked away on bases over there face mortar attacks.

This takes a toll on the families left behind. “Everyone up here is on Prozac,” a wife from Fort Drum, N.Y., told me. We field phone calls from our loved ones on the frontlines. We deal with money shortfalls and anxious children. And then our combat veterans come home. In the last few years, divorces among enlisted soldiers shot up 28 percent and the suicide rate among Iraq veterans doubled.

Though some claim that all Americans are making sacrifices for the war on terrorism, it’s just not true. The few who are sent to fight and those left behind who are an intimate part of their daily lives are the ones whose mental health, finances and relationships are taking the hit.

A universal draft would certainly help spread the sacrifice. But we all know that the privileged will find a way to avoid serving, as they did by paying $300 during the Civil War or claiming college deferments during Vietnam.

What we need is a war tax, dedicated to financing the support services needed by military families and combat veterans. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a long-term costs-of-war tax. Because the tax I’m proposing, like the needs it’s intended to meet, will not end when the war does.

Historically, war taxes are how America finances its military conflicts — taxes on income, beverages, tobacco, utilities and more. The federal government first imposed what became a 3 percent tax on long-distance telephone calls in 1898 to help pay for the Spanish-American War. Since then, it’s been repealed, most recently last summer, and reinstated several times.

Some argue that sharing the sacrifice by raising taxes hurts the economy. But clearly the phone tax didn’t damage the growth of the telecommunications industry. And during its last three years in existence, it brought $15 billion into the government’s general fund.

If a phone tax were reinstated, or a tax on oil or clothing — something we use in proportion to our income — then all Americans would wind up shouldering at least a small portion of the burden of our nation’s wars. Military families would be exempt.

Unlike the old phone tax, however, this new tax must be dedicated to financing programs that support and heal combat veterans and their families during deployment and afterward — combat trauma counseling, respite child care, part-time jobs for spouses trying to make ends meet, marriage counseling. These programs have always suffered from meager budgets, and while the public’s interest will inevitably move on, the needs won’t go away as long as America has a military.

For those who oppose the war and spending any additional money on it, all I can say is that this isn’t about financing a war. It’s about reducing human suffering. And for everyone who claims to “support the troops” — peace activists and war supporters alike — put your money where your bumper stickers are.