03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

War Dead and Differential Grief

More than 5100 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Consider those deaths.  Then consider the 13 who died at Fort Hood.

In 2007, the bloodiest year in our two ongoing wars, 1021 soldiers died, an average of more than 2.5 per day, every day of the year.  That means every 5 five days we experienced the equivalent of the Fort Hood massacre.  This year we have lost a total of 429 soldiers, an average of 1.2 per day, every day of the year, or the equivalent of a Ford Hood every 11 days.  We should all ponder our indifference to those deaths compared to the national outpouring of grief for the victims at Fort Hood.

Obama mourned the victims at Fort Hood in part by reading the names of the 13 people slain in the horrific shooting rampage.  Yet we do not read aloud the names of the 13 soldiers slain in Iraq and Afghanistan every 11 days.

The President met privately with family members of the soldiers killed and wounded in the attack.  Yet he does not meet with the families of the 13 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan every 11 days.

More than 15,000 mourners joined President Obama.  Yet no such crowd gathers for the 13 slain every 11 days in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shortly after the shooting President Obama said, “It’s difficult enough when we lose these brave Americans in battles overseas. It is horrifying that they should come under fire at an Army base on American soil.”  I disagree that we should find any distinction between losing soldiers in battles overseas and losing soldiers here at home, regardless of how or where they died.

I understand that Obama meant to convey the idea that the attack on our soil was horrific rather than to compare the deaths of some soldiers to others.  But we have done just that. The saturation media coverage, national angst and outpouring of grief resulting from the tragedy at Fort Hood diminish those who have fallen silently elsewhere without equivalent consideration.   The 13 slain soldiers certainly deserve our attention, respect and honor.  But so too do the 13 who die every 11 days in the Middle East, but we largely ignore them.

The death of a soldier should be equivalent to any other.  I fully understand that the circumstances in which a soldier dies vary widely.  Some die from friendly fire, others charging up a hill into a hail of bullets to save a fallen comrade.  Some die in aviation accidents or in car crashes.  But in each case a soldier died serving his or her country, giving the ultimate sacrifice.  All deserve equal recognition, equal levels of gratitude from the nation they served.

I know that nobody intentionally diminishes the deaths of the 13 soldiers every 11 days in honoring the slain at Fort Hood, and that our national grief is genuinely borne from the best intentions.  But intentionally or not, we have made a distinction that is deeply disturbing.  Nothing distinguishes the deaths of the 13 at Fort Hood from the 13 in Iraq and Afghanistan except our response to the deaths.

I wonder if in the end our relatively exaggerated reaction to Fort Hood is not a bit selfish.  We know at some level that we ignore the horrors of war and go about our daily lives unaffected by losses and sacrifices of others.  We put out of our minds completely the 13 soldiers who die every 11 days abroad.  We see no headlines about those soldiers; we have no presidential eulogy mourning their deaths.  So we assuage our guilt by overreacting to the deaths at home, allowing ourselves to pretend that we properly account for all who sacrifice for us.  But we do not.  Our differential reactions to the horror of Fort Hood and deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan prove the point.

I am grateful that our nation honors the 13 slain in Texas.  I hope that someday we can devote equal attention and react with the same deep emotion to the 13 who die every 11 days beyond our shores.  The slain in Fort Hood do not deserve less; the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve more.