When we think of the term war crimes, the mental imagery is often of horrific acts of brutality being committed by our nation’s enemies in faraway lands.
Some of the atrocities are happening right here on U.S. soil, far away from the battlefield, and against those who fought for our freedoms years ago.
Besides an overpowering lack of empathy for the men and women who served in the armed forces when they return — especially among the younger generation — there seems to be a growing lack of respect.
Most of the time it is reflected in small ways, such as protests that cannot separate the tragedy of war from the sense of duty of soldiers or parents who gleefully let their children climb on war memorials like they are marble and granite monkey bars.
Perhaps it’s because so few people know what it is like to feel so bound by a sense of nation that one is willing to give up everything to protect other people’s freedom.
A society that for a time after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks was brought together by a greater good and sense of national community has started the descent into narcissistic isolation.
That pales in comparison to the disrespect veterans have been receiving from the agency specifically established to help them return to civilian life: the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The nation has had nearly 400 years to get this right — considering that the first law promising to support disabled soldiers was passed by the Pilgrims in 1636.
But even since its streamlining and elevation to a Cabinet-level office in 1989, problems have plagued the administration.
Just two years ago, the agency was rocked by the revelation that wait times for some veterans to get the care they needed were being drastically under-stated because of "chronic system failures" at under-staffed facilities. A report that resulted in the resignation of then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and others found more than 120,000 veterans never received the care they needed — and dozens died — while Veterans Administration medical center staff members were urged to keep false sets of records to make the centers’ performance seem better than it was.
It was a costly and shameful calamity, but apparently not the end of the misdeeds.
A report last week by Cox Media using records through the non-profit watchdog group Open the Books, identified $20 million spent by the Department of Veterans Affairs between 2004 and 2014 on artwork.
Paintings, sculptures and fountains were on the list, as were $1 million for a courtyard at a veterans facility and $21,000 for a fake Christmas tree.
There was even $280,000 spent for an art installation meant to honor blind veterans.
Think about that one for a minute.
The VA was warned more than a year ago about excessive spending on artwork and last fall a Congressional committee hearing addressed concerns about $6.3 million in spending for artwork at the Palo Alto (California) Healthcare System.
Granted, art can have a therapeutic value — especially those who are recovering from the trauma of war. But it’s hard to imagine much of this wasn’t simply a money-grab from an agency that seems to have a continued lack of accountability.
While $20 million over 10 years might seem like a drop in the bucket for an agency that oversees billions in spending, it again raises questions about whether the department really makes it a priority to, as President Abraham Lincoln said, "care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."
That ambivalence is the real crime.