Pearl Harbor reminds us how little we’re sacrificing

A poster painted by Robert Sloan for the U.S. government encourages Americans to buy savings bonds during World War II to fund the military effort.
A poster painted by Robert Sloan for the U.S. government encourages Americans to buy savings bonds during World War II to fund the military effort. The Associated Press

Sunday, we mark the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which thrust the U.S. into World War II. It began four years of sacrifice, at home as well on the bloody battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. There were blackouts and food rationing, and nearly half of all Americans bought war bonds to fund the mammoth military effort.

Our new Pearl Harbor was the Sept. 11 attack, which started the war on terror. It’s still going 13 years later, but in all that time, very few Americans have been asked to give up much of anything. A minuscule number of servicemen and women have volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan over and over again.

As we honor the dwindling few Pearl Harbor survivors and all “Greatest Generation” veterans, we ought to reflect on that as well.

Yes, there have been occasional calls for national service, and Americans support charities and nonprofits that aid military families and veterans. But there’s something missing – a broader way to do our part.

Shortly after 9/11, the government promoted “Patriot Bonds” to help pay for the war on global terrorism. But it was false advertising since they were just regular savings bonds with a new label, and the proceeds went into the general treasury. Not surprisingly, they flopped and were discontinued in 2011 after raising barely $11 billion.

After President Barack Obama announced the surge of troops going to Afghanistan, bills for more specific war bonds were introduced in Congress in 2009 and again in 2011. They went nowhere, in part because it was in the middle of the Great Recession, and some economists warned that if too many people bought bonds instead of spending, that would slow the recovery.

With the economy on the upswing, Congress should look seriously at a 21st-century version of war bonds – this time to help pay for the care that veterans, especially those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, will need for decades to come.

Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, sponsored an earlier war bond bill, but his office says he’s now focusing on a bill for special postage stamps whose sales would help fund health care for veterans. While that’s an interesting idea, it would take a lot of stamps to raise the amount that bonds could generate more quickly.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest advocacy group for post-9/11 veterans, says it hasn’t pushed on veterans bonds but would support the idea in principle. A spokesman says there are “only so many philanthropic dollars” out there to help veterans and much more funding is required.

These bonds would have to be designed carefully, since the U.S. economy is far more complex than during World War II. To make financial sense for the government, the rate of return on these bonds would have to be low enough to make them cheaper than continuing to borrow from China and other foreign nations and investors. Americans, who have many more options to invest their savings, would have to sacrifice some profit.

Some naysayers are sure to point out that our society is much different now, that our sense of patriotism is not nearly as deeply felt. But we’d be willing to bet that bond drives could be just as successful as those during World War II – updated for the social media world, of course.

There’s an untapped yearning among many Americans to back up our reverent words for wounded warriors with something concrete.

There’s certainly an unmet need.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is beleaguered, trying to recover from the scandal over secret waiting lists and veterans unable to get medical appointments.

In response, Congress passed and the president signed legislation that included $16 billion in emergency spending for the VA, but that cost is expected to go much higher. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the measure will add $35 billion to VA health care spending in the next decade and likely far more.

Medical care and disability benefits for about 2.6 million veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq are drivers of the long-term costs of the wars. The most exhaustive study to date projects the wars’ final price tag could grow from $2 trillion as of 2013 to between $4 trillion and $6 trillion.

The federal government is going to borrow a lot of that money. Given the chance, Americans will prove they’re willing to lend a helping hand.