The Astounding Sacrifice of Soldiers

The Taliban's destruction of a Chinook helicopter killed the most U.S. troops in one day since 2001 and called into question the purpose of continuing the American mission in Afghanistan

Foust Aug8 p.jpg


Last month, CNN reported on a remarkable soldier who was killed in Afghanistan.

Army Master Sgt. Benjamin A. Stevenson, 36, was on his tenth tour of duty in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq when he was killed Thursday in a remote area of eastern Afghanistan...

However, a U.S. military official has now confirmed to CNN that Stevenson was the only U.S. casualty of a brutal two-day firefight against an al Qaeda-related group that erupted when U.S. and Afghan troops attacked an insurgent encampment, killing nearly 80 foreign fighters...

Stevenson was part of a U.S. and Afghan special operations mission that went in to attack the area in Afghanistan's Paktika province.

It was remarkable for several reasons. Master Sgt. Stevenson was on his tenth tour of duty, fighting in wars seemingly for the majority of his adult life. He was caught in a vicious multi-day firefight with insurgents, and helped to kill 80 of them. And he was operating in a remote, barely populated mountain range in Afghanistan's extreme southeast.

In a way, that firefight is a perfect encapsulation of the astounding sacrifice we ask soldiers to endure: enormous costs to personal safety, family, and to their own lives, in tiny battles that don't change the war's fundamental dysfunction: a complete lack of strategy.

This weekend's horrifying deadly helicopter crash is, sadly, just another astounding sacrifice by U.S. troops. The U.S. Army Rangers that the 30 Americans and 8 Afghans in that Chinook were on their way to rescue were pinned down in a vicious firefight, much like Master Sgt. Stevenson.

Even as General Petraeus lauds himself for reducing violence, intense, extended firefights are becoming increasingly common in Afghanistan. In May, Army soldiers in western Nuristan were pinned down for eight hours trying to recapture a district center occupied by the Taliban. In Uruzgan, there is a paroxysm of violence. And just this morning, in Paktika province, where Master Sgt. Stevenson was killed, another helicopter crashed (the second in recent months: this past May, another helicopter also went down in Paktika, killing one).

But as shocking as these deaths are -- and this weekend marks the single deadliest incident in the war so far -- the fundamental questions of the war in Afghanistan remain unchanged.

President Obama's goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda has been largely accomplished. The Afghan government has a sufficiently large military to prevent a total Taliban takeover, and with a political reconciliation there is every likelihood that al Qaeda will be denied access to Afghanistan.

So, even while we salute those soldiers who sacrificed their lives to rescue their brothers locked in combat, we should also be asking why we require them to do so. It is difficult to identify a solid, compelling strategic rationale for the war to exist in its current form, reliant on special operators conducting thousands kill missions and the continued expansion of troops into new combat zones. That is the real scandal in all of this: the much bigger question of "why."

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Global

From This Author

Just In