The Astounding Sacrifice of Soldiers

By Joshua Foust

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

Reuters

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."


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/08/the-astounding-sacrifice-of-soldiers/243281/