Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time walking in Arlington National Cemetery, haunted by history in this great national national monument to courage and sacrifice. It's a profound testament to the human and emotional cost of war.
This was already on my mind because of the young men and women I saw at the airports in Charleston and Atlanta on their way to our current conflicts. Their heavy backpacks were the least of the burdens they carried. One young woman in her crisp camouflage uniform especially stood out in my mind -- the little stuffed animals lashed to her huge backpack made her seem achingly young and vulnerable. Bob Herbert caught this feeling in a recent Times column.
A friend of mine who lives in South Carolina sent me an e-mail about a young serviceman in civilian clothes whom she and her husband noticed as he talked on a public telephone in the Atlanta airport last week. He was 19 or 20 years old and quite thin. His clothes and his shoes were worn, my friend said, but the thing she noticed most “was the sadness in his eyes and his sweet demeanor.”Spend some time in Arlington, and you're immersing yourself in the best and worst in American history. You're reminded of how many people have served in America's wars, how many paid the ultimate price, and how many others returned, their lives forever changed by their injuries or the emotional toll of combat.
The young man was speaking to his mom in a voice that was quite emotional. My friend recalled him saying, “We’re about to board for Oklahoma for the training before we move out. I didn’t want to bother Amber at work, so please tell her I called if you don’t think it will upset her too much. ... I miss you all so much and love you, and I just don’t know how I’ll get through this.”
At the end of the call, the serviceman had tears in his eyes and my friend said she did, too. She wrote in the e-mail: “I stood up and wished him good luck, and he smiled the sweetest smile that has haunted me ever since.”
You ask yourself, was it worth it? There's no simple, reassuring answer. Every death is tragic. But you can't help but think that some died in great causes that changed the world and made it a better place. It's hard to call any war a good war, but some have come as close as possible in this fallen world. Others have simply been a testament to folly, misguided policies and the spinelessness of expedient politicians.
Now the Obama administration is weighing whether to vastly increase our military commitment to the Afghan war. It's hard to see how we could prevail in what would become our longest war, with little public support, in a faraway land that has been the burial ground for the hubris of empires from Alexander the great to the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Would it be worth it? Or would we someday look back on it as one more chapter in what Barbara Tuchman called "the march of folly"?