Forgotten War, Forgotten Deaths

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With a few weeks' retrospect, it's clear that the most objectionable part of the Chuck Hagel confirmation melee was not the personal smears, nor the posturing by Senators Graham and McCain et al, nor the first-ever filibuster of a SecDef nomination by senators who didn't want their blocking tactic to be called by its real name, nor even the demand by Senator Ted Cruz that Hagel disprove pulled-from-thin-air insinuations that he could be on the North Korean payroll.


The most objectionable part, of a process supposedly meant to assess the fitness of a former senator and wounded combat veteran to serve as civilian head of the military, was most senators' apparent boredom with the war in which American troops were being killed and wounded even as they spoke. Oh, that war, the one in Afghanistan. The one in which an average of six Americans per week were killed last year. Here are their names. The famous Word Cloud of questions by Senate Armed Services Committee members showed the mind-space, among our legislative leaders, that Afghanistan now claims:
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Why bring this up when looking back on 10 years of war in Iraq? The connection is that the situation in Afghanistan has festered so long largely because American strategy, troops, money, material, and effort were prematurely diverted for five or six years, starting midway through 2002, because of the impending invasion of Iraq. As we reflect on the cost of that diversion, here are two memorable pieces of writing to seek out.

One is Brian Mockenhaupt's "The Living and the Dead," about the members of a USMC platoon in Afghanistan. I hope you will set this aside for a half-hour's sustained reading. I predict that if you do you will think about the people serving in our country's name, and their sacrifice, for a long time.

The other is Gerald Seymour's novel A Deniable Death. At face value this is entirely different from Mockenhaupt's careful journalism. Seymour is a veteran thriller-writer, and this is a genuinely gripping page-turner. But it is about the same moral drama that is described in "The Living and the Dead," and whose consequences Chuck Hagel must now deal with, and that the senators mostly ignored. A brief sample, involving one of the book's major figures: an Iranian engineer who excels in the art of making extremely damaging "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs for Iraq and then Afghanistan:
He would tell his audience of the effect that the explosive devices... had on units' morale, and give them, as a rallying cry, the conclusion that one casualty, without a leg or arm, needed four men to bring him back from an explosion and a helicopter to fly him to the rear...

He spoke, too, of the medium-term damage to troops' psychology, if they had been exposed to situations where bombs were widespread, particularly if there had been casualties in their unit: a larger number of enemy combatants in the Iraq war had gone home with post-traumatic stress disorder, as sick as if they had been severely wounded, and would not return.
The wars have rolled on, with most of America not noticing. I am writing this item mainly to suggest that Brian Mockenhaupt's essay, in particular, will make you reflect on the choices the country has made. 
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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