So now, we're reminded of the military laurels on which Gen. David Petraeus rode to four stars and near-Eisenhower immortality: the counterinsurgency strategy, which he successfully tested in Iraq and which, it came to be presumed, was as applicable as the Pentateuch to all mankind, including Afghanistan. That's certainly more relevant to the world than naughtiness with predatory females.
When I see that Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and international forces in Iran, is proposing to keep between 6,000 and 15,000 troops in Afghanistan after the so-called 2014 drawdown -- meaning, as reported in both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, a major shift from calculated election year dithering about "getting our soldiers out" -- I feel my eyes go dark. Not three weeks later, Afghanistan turns out to be entirely political, with the usual suspects showing up for the 2012 lame-duck session of Congress with predictably polarized positions on the whole thing.
As CEO and executive director of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization at the peak of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, I personally served over 3,500 bereaved next of kin of American military who died in active service on and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is impossible for me to "rate" the profound tragedies with which I've been entrusted. Though most of the fallen died in a combat or enemy fire situation, there were also illnesses, accidents, friendly fire, suicide and even murder, also while in active service. I was rigorous about equal compassion regardless of cause of death. Whether a soldier was killed by a roadside improvised explosive device or, overwhelmed with unfathomable experiences ended his own life, "how it happened" was not the issue for me and our organization. To serve in uniform is to be a hero.
Most family members can hardly speak of it, sometimes taking years even to ask the simple questions to complete basic information qualifying their fallen loved one for the gift our organization provided. Those with whom I did actually speak were, without exception, a little shy, exquisitely polite and, just behind the brave smiles, utterly shattered. The interaction spontaneously followed a template. First, the respectful hope that they, in military parlance the primary designated next of kin (PNOK), qualified under federal 501(c)(3) regulations, state of charter, and the organization's strict mission guidelines for our offering. Second, reaching for compassionate personal contact, like a lifeline -- feeling safe, by way of our being in partnership with the armed services.
Quavering voices, sudden pauses for silent tears. But never was I tested more than when the grieving one would ask: "But -- what was it all for?"
To a person, every bereaved family member of a fallen American in military service since 2001, in my experience, yearns for the simple, convincing answer, two magic words: "For America." Whatever sacred permutations those two words may take -- family, flag, God, everything that has always stirred our blood since the Founding Fife and Drums. To this day, I can't recall how I came up with comforting language for each stricken mother or father, sister, brother or grandrelative, to assure them of the extraordinary value of their sacrifice. Each family member and each American loved one in uniform needs, and deserves, not some pre-approved script but a personal appreciation of the life lived and taken. The little boy who loved playing soldier. The serious girl who doesn't care whether it was a chick thing or not. The 19-year-old who loves heavy metal, Mozart, and his mom. Young Americans who see opportunity and blessings in military benefits. They're seldom from our big cities; it's always the rural or low-net-worth ZIP codes -- the 90 percent of America that's the most beautiful and the least inhabited.
In casualty, the imperative of noble cause, which has nothing to do with politics, is as proud a banner to the families of our fallen as any gold star hung in a lonely window in World War II; as a name etched into the glossy Vietnam Veterans Memorial, tenderly preserved with a charcoal rub onto a sheet of paper, treasured and tucked away with the first baby tooth.
Do our men and women in uniform have time to pay attention to who's saying what in Congress? No. They take in permitted YouTube, Skype, live feeds or smartphone expressions of our patriotic appreciation. Faces smiling through tears, little children waving at the technology in an innocence of delight and confusion, everyone in the pact of mutual censorship of anxiety, fear, longing and unspoken doubt.
If anything loses a war, or a cause, it's doubt. Doubt is the loss of heart. We all have fears, but only doubt is fatal. Our chances of survival have been documented to be far greater in extreme situations by being proactive rather than waiting, say, for the bomb to fall fall on our heads or the ship to founder while just sitting there, wondering what it all means. Unlike fear, nature's lifesaving reflex primally designed to jolt us to run, doubt is consciously asking, "Why?" and failing to hear some kind of passive, saving truth. Doubt cowers. Courage acts. And fear makes no difference in the outcome.
I'm feeling that leaden absence of truth in the "emerging plans" and "assumptions" of official headlines. Certain only that the threadbare oxymoron known as the Afghan military can only be depended upon for a hapless return to Kite Runner Taliban. Particularly with Petraeus and Allen now possibly skating into retirement with full benefits, handing off final assessments under the pressure of public pillorying and cheap Congressional politics. Right. Cheap, as in $6 billion worth of "elect me" just ended; in 8,037 deaths in coalition military casualties since 2001 in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The latter, by the way, being Afghanistan. I wonder what Potomac public affairs genius comes up with these names for the global branding of blood, treasure and purpose.
But lately, I'm also seeing more and more images of young girls there, sitting eager and tranquil at their battered desks in small, dark spaces serving as schoolrooms, unafraid. It gives me more courage, and heart, than a Pentagon stuffed with generals.
And a worthy answer, finally, for the families of our fallen.