Peace graffitiGive it a chance.Photo: Patrick HillOutgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates used a chilling term over the weekend when discussing the multiple conflicts the United States is involved in: “wars of choice”:

“When I took this job, the United States was fighting two very difficult, very costly wars,” Mr. Gates said. “And it has seemed to me: Let’s get this business wrapped up before we go looking for more opportunities.”

“If we were about to be attacked or had been attacked or something happened that threatened a vital U.S. national interest, I would be the first in line to say, ‘Let’s go,’” Mr. Gates said. “I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.”

He’s not the only one. According to a new poll conducted by The Hill, 72 percent of those surveyed said the U.S. is fighting in too many places and should pull back its troops.

War is expensive. It costs human lives and human sanity. It also costs a ton of cash.

And cash is something that American cities are struggling to come up with these days, as property-tax collection plummets thanks to the foreclosure crisis, and state and federal aid evaporates.

Last Friday, municipal leaders gathered for the United States Conference of Mayors decided to step up and say that they think it’s time for Americans to keep that money at home instead. They are expected today to vote on a resolution to bring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an expeditious end so that the $126 billion per year those conflicts cost can be redeployed at home — paying for things like firefighters and police officers, roads and transit service, education and children’s services, all of which are being slashed around the country.

From The New York Times:

“There are so many better uses for the money,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore. Mayor R. T. Rybak of Minneapolis lamented that cities across the nation were being forced to make “deeply painful cuts to the most core services while the defense budget continued to escape scrutiny.” And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles said that the idea “that we would build bridges in Baghdad and Kandahar and not Baltimore and Kansas City absolutely boggles the mind.”

It was an attack on cities — including the one I happen to live in — that catalyzed the wars we have been waging now for nine years and counting. The urgency of that time, when the sickening smell of smoke permeated half of New York and we were all waiting for the next blow to fall, seems very far away now. The most present dangers facing us now are economic in nature.

What we are left with at this point are conflicts that are sapping our national vitality and our treasury for reasons we no longer remember or understand. Wars of choice.

Another kind of choice is possible, as the U.S. Conference of Mayors suggests. A choice to reinvest in the cities that drive our economy, and the people that power our cities.

The choice is ours. What will we choose?