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Monday, July 28, 2014

The ambiguity of war

I plugged a simple search term into Google last week: “Were Afghanistan and Iraq worth it?” Tens of thousands of entries popped up.

With Memorial Day approaching, I wanted to see whether others believed the U.S. should have simultaneously gone to war in two countries; that is, whether the thousands of American servicemen and women killed, the tens of thousands injured and the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars spent in battle were justified by the outcome. Has the U.S.’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq had a concrete impact on the world?

The newspaper headlines came fast and furious:

“War in Iraq and Afghanistan not worth the cost, many U.S. veterans say,” read one.

“A third of vets say Iraq and Afghan wars a waste,” proclaimed another.

And on they went.

Amid the array of headlines, one struck me as curious. “Deaths may not be worth it,” it read. I found its uncertainty unsettling.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as wars often do, divided our nation into two camps. You either believed in them as the defining causes of our time, or you didn’t. Equivocation was not an option. This headline, however, conveyed an either/or message: Maybe it was all worth it, but maybe it wasn’t.

With my curiosity piqued, I clicked on the headline, which appeared in The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., on March 15, 2012. Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank — a graduate of Calhoun High School in Merrick, where I live — had penned the beautifully written column, which had appeared in the Post the previous day. What were the odds that I would click on his column out of so many thousands?

Milbank followed the family of 23-year-old Marine Sgt. William Stacey as they laid him to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, after he was killed while on patrol in Afghanistan. He was on his fourth deployment.

Stacey’s family buried him, Milbank wrote, “near a young magnolia tree that will shade his headstone in future years –– with the too-familiar rituals: white horses, wooden caisson, marching platoon, rifle volleys, taps. There were tearful parents, the grief-stricken fiancée, the teenage sister holding flowers and the cremated remains of a young man who left behind an open-in-case-of-death letter released by the family.”

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