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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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After all, in two different incidents in November , Afghans turned their weapons on Americans trainers and eight U.S. troops died.  (In the past 13 months, this has happened to Western trainers six times.)  These stories, too, generally haven’t made it off the inside pages of papers.

In understanding how this relative lack of attention is possible, it’s worth noting that the American dead tend to come disproportionately from easy-to-ignore tough-luck regions of the country, and disproportionately as well from small town and rural America, where service in the armed forces may be more valued, but times are also rougher, unemployment rates higher, and opportunities less.  In this context, consider those November dead.  If you look through the minimalist announcements released by the Pentagon, as I did recently, you discover that they were almost all men in their twenties, and that none of them seem to have come from our giant metropolises.  Among the hometowns of the dead, there was no Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or Houston.  There were a range of second-level cities including Flagstaff (Arizona), Rochester (New York), San Jose (California), Tallahassee (Florida), and Tucson (Arizona).

For the rest, from Aroostook, Maine, to Mesquite, Texas, the hometown names the Pentagon lists, whether they represent rural areas, small towns, parts of suburbs, or modest-sized cities, read like a dirge for places you’d never have heard of if you hadn't yourself lived in the vicinity.  Here, for instance, are the hometowns of the six U.S. trainers who died in a single incident in late November when a “trusted” Afghan policeman opened fire on them. (Whether he was a Taliban infiltrator or simply a distraught and angry man remains an unanswered, possibly unanswerable, question): Athens (Ohio, pop. 21,909), Beaver Dam (Wisconsin, pop. 15,169), Mexico (Maine, pop. 2,959), Quartz Hill (California, pop. 9,890), Senoia (Georgia, pop. 3,720), Tell City (Indiana, pop. 7,845). 

Here, as well, are some, but hardly all, of the other hometowns of the November dead: Chesterfield (Michigan), Chittenango (New York), Conroe (Texas), Dalzell (South Carolina), Davie (Florida), Fort Smith (Arkansas), Freeman (Missouri), Frostburg (Maryland), Greenfield (Wisconsin), Greenwood (Louisiana), Mills River (North Carolina), Pago Pago (American Samoa), Sierra Vista (Arizona), Thomasville (Georgia), and Wyomissing (Pennsylvania).

Back in early 2007, Demographer William O'Hare and journalist Bill Bishop, working with the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute, which specializes in the overlooked rural areas of our country, crunched the numbers on the rural dead from America’s recent wars. According to their study, the death rate "for rural soldiers (24 per million adults aged 18 to 59) is 60% higher than the death rate for those soldiers from cities and suburbs (15 deaths per million)."  Recently, sociologist Katherine Curtis arrived at similar conclusions in a study using data on U.S. troop deaths in Iraq through 2007.  There’s no reason to believe that much has changed in the last three years. 

Keep in mind that a number of the soldiers who died in November had undoubtedly been in Afghanistan before, probably more than once, and had they lived (and stayed in the military), they would surely have been there again.  The reason is simple enough: the full weight of the American war state and its seemingly eternal state of war lands squarely on the relatively modest numbers of “volunteers,” often from out of the way places, who make up the American fighting force. 

The New York Times’s Bob Herbert, for instance, wrote an October column about an Army Sergeant First Class who died in Afghanistan while on his 12th tour of duty (four in Iraq, eight in Afghanistan).  By 2014, had he lived, he could easily have been closing in on 20 tours.  As Herbert indicated, he wasn’t typical, but multiple tours of duty are now the norm. 

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