Cleaveland: War legacy measured in lost lives

Cleaveland: War legacy measured in lost lives

May 20th, 2010 in Health

As we approach Memorial Day, the United States is in its ninth year of combat in Afghanistan and seventh year of fighting in Iraq. As of last week, 4,226 American servicemen and women had died in combat and 1,056 in non-hostile circumstances. Almost 38,000 had been wounded. Psychological casualties cannot be computed.

Apart from the Washington Post and the PBS News Hour which regularly report casualties, the media pay only episodic attention to the on-going challenges facing members of our armed forces in the two war zones. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, volcanic eruption in Iceland, continued financial turmoil, and political posturing over healthcare reform dominate our news reports.

"War," a just-published memoir by Sebastian Junger, provides valuable insights into the incredibly harsh conditions faced each day by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Junger spent extended intervals embedded with a platoon during its 15 month deployment in a desolate valley close to the Afghan-Pakistani border. Junger's story is brutal, sad, inspiring, and a tribute to profound bonds of comradeship.

Second Platoon of Battle Company was part of the legendary 173rd Airborne Brigade. Battle Company's job was to man outposts at one end of a six-mile long valley surrounded by steep, rugged mountains. Second Platoon occupied an outpost fashioned of plywood bolstered, bricks and mortar, sandbags and barbed wire. Soldiers endured scorching summer days with temperatures routinely above 100 degrees and wintry days of snow. Each man carried up to 100 pounds of weaponry, food, water and protective gear on patrol.

The soldiers continually dodged sniper fire. When patrols left the base on foot, they were exposed to roadside bombs and deadly ambushes from an enemy that could quickly disappear into caves or nearby villages. Nighttime patrols led to sudden, intense fire from close range which negated the power of circling helicopter gunships and nearby artillery. Within moments, the platoon sustained heavy casualties. Wounded soldiers continued to fire. Soldiers routinely disregarded personal safety to rescue downed comrades. They retrieved their dead. On one occasion two soldiers charged Afghan fighters to rescue a buddy who had been captured.

Members of Second Platoon dreaded fire-fights but acknowledged emotional highs from the chaos of battle. They became tense and volatile if lulls between fights were prolonged. On 18 day furloughs home they drank excessively and worried about events at the outpost.

Troubling questions arise from "War." To what extent were members of Battle Company used as bait to draw enemy combatants into the open so that they could be attacked by air and artillery? Who were the enemy? Insurgents from Pakistan? Taliban warriors? Young men from nearby villages? What are the consequences of routinely dispensing sleeping pills and psychiatric drugs to keep soldiers functioning in a combat zone? What will be the postwar future for men exposed to extreme, unremitting danger?

Junger presents an unvarnished report with asides that discuss topics such as courage and stress. Among his reflections: "Society can give its young men almost any job and they'll figure how to do it. They'll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end it will get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for."

"War" deals with the frontline implications of combat waged on our behalf in a harsh and distant land. I hope that members of Congress and the Administration read "War" and consider the human toll of our engagement in Afghanistan.

War finally reminds all of us of the significance of Memorial Day.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at