Early Sunday morning, a US official was tasked with the unenviable responsibility of confirming reports that a new milestone had been reached regarding American involvement in Afghanistan. During war milestones are rarely causes for celebration and this was no exception, as the deaths of two American soldiers on Saturday evening raised the number of US military casualties to 2,000 since the war began almost 11 years ago. By the standards of modern warfare, 2,000 casualties over more than a decade of fighting is about as fortunate as could be expected, but that hardly counts as consolation. When the war in Afghanistan is viewed in isolation from other contemporaneous US conflicts, statistics from the Department of Defense show that the US armed forces has averaged the loss of one soldier every two days since the hostilities began in October of 20011. To put that into perspective, the Syrian Civil War has produced an average daily death count of 27 combatants from the Syrian Army and rebel forces.
Admittedly, this is like comparing apples to oranges as the conditions surrounding the two conflicts bare little resemblance to one another beyond the region of the world in which they appear. If our servicemen and women were being killed at anything even approaching the rate we’re see in the Syrian conflict, we would have been out of Kabul a long, long time ago. But, the lethargic and grinding pace of what is now the longest armed conflict in American history has put the war in Afghanistan on the back burner. We’ve lived for so long with this war that we forget that it’s even there most of the time. Mitt Romney literally forgot about the war during his RNC acceptance speech, which is impressive considering he represents the only party in American history whose basic ideology could be summed up in a Toby Keith song. Ask 10 Americans what they think we should do in Afghanistan and I damn near guarantee that half of them thought we’d left already. The deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan have become as commonplace as the murders that lead evening newscasts all across this country. We have been fully desensitized to them through repetition, distance and media sanitization. It’s hard for death to mean much to the average man when it happens day-in and day-out, half a world away, to someone he’s never met and will probably never see.
With President Obama’s withdrawal date set for 2014, our involvement in the region has taken on the flavor of stoppage time in a game of soccer. Technically the game should be over by now, but the referee won’t blow the damn whistle and until he does all there is to do is try to bend and not break. But, it’s not like this anything new for Americans. We have a long and storied tradition of fighting wars beyond the point that they’ve actually ended. Before becoming our nation’s 7th president, Andrew Jackson earned his place in American military folklore by beating back the British at The Battle of New Orleans more than two weeks after peace had been brokered. In those days information wasn’t so easily disseminated and it took nearly a month for news of the Treaty of Ghent’s signing to make its way across the Atlantic to American and British forces. Ultimately, the single most decisive American victory in the War of 1812 happened after the war was technically over. But, while The Battle of New Orleans did serve a purpose in announcing America’s military might to the world and launching Jackson’s political career, similar battles during The Civil War could claim no such validation.
The final casualty of The Civil War was a young Union soldier named John Jefferson Williams. A private in the 34th Regiment Indiana Infantry, Williams was killed in The Battle of Palmito Ranch near Brownsville, Texas. The battle took place more than a month after General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the war. Unlike their predecessors who fought in the Battle of New Orleans, both parties involved in the Battle of Palmito Ranch knew full well that the war was over. The reasons for the conflict are still murky, but historians believe it was initiated either out of a desire for martial glory on the part of an overly ambitious colonel or for material gain. Either way, John J. Williams earned the dubious distinction of being the last casualty of the bloodiest war in American history a full month after the Confederacy had surrendered. It was the first and last time he would ever see combat.
I mention this story only because no one ever does. It has become the footnote of a footnote in the margins of US history. These types of things don’t even make the epilogue because they’re of no consequence to anyone but the most obsessive Civil War buffs and possibly the direct descendants of John J. Williams’ family. Whenever I hear about the latest green on blue shooting in Kandahar or IED explosion in Helmand Province, I get this image of all the pockets of the Western US that kept on fighting after the Civil War was over. If there hadn’t been a numeric significance to their deaths, the two US soldiers who were killed on Saturday night would have gotten no more than a 20 second shout out from Brian Williams and maybe a 500 word article in the back of The New York Times’ World section. As it happened their death prompted people to reevaluate the point and purpose of our involvement in Afghanistan and, maybe more importantly, to remind us that we were still over there. But, by the time you read this we will have forgotten about the troops in Afghanistan and will be focused on the impending presidential debates in Denver this week. We can only hope the moderators and the candidates will respect the memory of the recently departed by providing substantive plans for getting our forces out of the region as soon as possible. If you’re going to be our Commander in Chief, it would be nice if you acknowledged the sacrifices of your charges by doing everything in your power to make sure none of those sacrifices are in vain.
1According to the US DoD, there was also a recorded total of 4,475 total deaths of armed services personnel since the start of operations in Iraq in 2003. They go on to say that a further 32,229 servicemen and women were wounded in action in Iraq over that same period of time.
Categories: International Affairs