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How Quickly Our Heroic Troops Are Forgotten When They Die

The casualties of the imperial venture Afghanistan rarely make much news anymore.

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So, while President Bush carefully avoided making public appearances at Dover Air Force Base as the coffins were being unloaded (lest someone confuse him with Vietnam-era President Lyndon Johnson), much publicity was given to the way he met privately and emotionally -- theoretically beyond the view of the media -- with the families of the dead. 

In a sense, whatever proscriptions were placed on imagery of the dead, the American dead were all over.  For one thing, no sooner did the Bush administration shut down those images than war critics, following their own Vietnam “lessons,” began complaining about his doing so.  And even if they hadn’t, every newspaper seemed to have its own “wall of heroes,” those spreads filled with tiny images of the faces of the American dead, while their names were repeatedly read in somber tones on television.  Similarly, antiwar activists toured the country with displays of empty combat boots or set up little cemeteries honoring the war dead, even while making the point that they should never have died. 

No less significantly, dying Americans were actually news.  I mean front-page news.  If American troops died in a firefight or thanks to a suicide bomber or went down in a helicopter, it was often in the headlines.  Whatever else you knew, you did know that Americans were dying in the wars Washington was fighting in distant lands. 

One November’s Dead

Well, that was Iraq, this is Afghanistan.  That was the Bush era, these are the Obama years.  So, with rare exceptions, the dead rarely make much news anymore. 

Now, except in small towns and local communities where the news of a local death or the funeral of a dead soldier is dealt with as a major event, American deaths, often dribbling in one or two at a time, are generally acknowledged in the last paragraphs of summary war pieces buried deep inside papers (or far into the TV news).  The American dead have, it seems, like the war they are now fighting, generally gone into the dustbin of news coverage.

Take November in Afghanistan.  You might have thought that American deaths would make headline news last month.  After all, according to the website, there were 58 allied deaths in that 30-day period, 53 of them American.  While those numbers are undoubtedly small if compared to, say, fatal traffic accidents, they are distinctly on the rise.  Along with much other news coming out of the planet’s number one narco-state, ranging from raging corruption to a rise in Taliban attacks, they trend terribly. 

To put those November figures in perspective, if you add up all the Americans who died in Afghanistan in any November from 2001, when the Bush administration launched its invasion, through 2009, you get a total of 59, just six more than last month.  Similarly, if you add up American deaths by year from 2001 through 2007, you get 475, as this is being written six more than have died so far in 2010.  (Note that these figures don’t include deaths categorized by the military as “potential suicides” that might in any way be linked to Afghan tours of duty.  There were 19 potential suicides reported in September and nine in October among soldiers on active duty; 10 in September and 16 in October among reserves not on active duty.  November figures have yet to be released.)

Given the modest attention focused on American deaths here in the U.S., you might almost imagine that, from the Washington elite on down, Americans preferred not to know the price being paid for a war, already in its tenth year (twentieth if you include our first Afghan War of 1980-1989); one that the Obama administration has now agreed to extend through 2014 for U.S. “combat troops” and possibly years beyond for tens of thousands of non-combat trainers and other forces who will be in no less danger. 

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