Veteran's Day

Osama bin Laden's death vindicates weary soldiers fighting a war they feared their country would forget


REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Osama Bin Laden The main road of Bagram Airfield is called Disney Drive. When an American is killed in Afghanistan, in the earliest hours of morning--long before sunrise--a siren calls every soldier to Disney. There, the men and women of the U.S. war machine stand in silence along the edge of the road, and salute a flag-draped coffin as it passes in darkness.

What many don't realize is that in a combat zone, there is no partisanship. Soldiers are neither hyper-patriotic, reciting the Pledge and waving flags, nor are they resentful pawns on a geopolitical chessboard. In Afghanistan, you're just there. And there is always work to be done, always a mission underway, always an inspection or briefing or training. Time does not fly and it does not feel temporary.

During the worst of it, you could feel the war slipping away. Not on the field of battle, but in the public's mind. Some nights, over illicit bottles of vodka purchased from friendly Afghans, one word often tumbled from lips of the American fighting man: "Korea." Ours, too, would be a forgotten war. The Taliban fell quickly, the Northern Alliance formed a transitional government, and Osama bin Laden was a ghost. Our job was to build a sustainable nation in a Mad Max wasteland, and we did our duty. But nation building isn't sexy, and whether or not we succeeded, it seemed, nobody would remember.

But everyone will remember May 1, 2011.

Everyone will remember how America did it. In the end, the most evil man in the world wasn't vaporized by a Daisy Cutter or atomized by a Predator drone. Rather, the best trained, most daring special operations force in the world did it up close. A head shot. It is grisly, perhaps, to take pleasure in such details, but war is a grisly business. His wretched carcass was shoved into a canvas bag and delivered at room temperature.

Success has a thousand fathers, it is said, but for once the aphorism is an understatement. Success, here, had tens of thousands of fathers and mothers, all of whom raised their right hand at least once after 9/11, knowing full well that a set of deployment orders had their names on it. President Bush and President Obama should be hailed for resisting the easy avenue of an early exit. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CIA Director Leon Panetta deserve credit for seeing a hard mission through. General Stanley McChrystal built the Joint Special Operations Command that almost certainly pulled the trigger, and wrote the field manual on how to defeat an impossible opponent. And General David Petraeus, who seems metaphysically incapable of losing a war, has proven why many believe him to be the greatest general of our lifetime.

America has tasted success in Afghanistan, but the mission is not yet finished. There is still a country to rebuild, and the risk to our men and women is not diminished. Many more coffins will be saluted on Disney Drive. But no soldier in the oppressive wastes should fear that it all comes to nothing, or that their comrades fell before an ungrateful, inattentive nation.

May 1st was an affirmation. The war in Afghanistan will never be forgotten.