Keep cool, Daniel Webster once said. Anger is not an argument.
Wise advice, but it sets an impossible standard if we reflect on the loss of 31 Americans in a single day in Afghanistan. Perhaps only prolonged and widespread anger will bring an end to this relentless loss of American lives.
Last Saturday, in the single deadliest incident for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, 30 American men were killed after a rocket-propelled grenade took down their Chinook helicopter.
Twenty-two of the dead were Navy SEALs, many of them from SEAL Team 6, which carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, though the Pentagon said none of the dead participated in that raid. Seven Afghan soldiers and an Afghan interpreter also were killed.
Sounding like John Wayne on a 1950s movie set, Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, offered his take on the tragedy:
“We grieve for our lost comrades and especially for their families, yet we also remember that the lads were doing what they wanted to be doing and they knew what they were about,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “This loss will only make the rest of us more determined, something that may be difficult for those who aren’t in the military to understand.”
And there it is, the timeworn admonishment that only those who serve in the military understand the military mind and that the rest of us should just keep our opinions to ourselves.
As if the rest of us have nothing at stake if this unpopular war continues. As if no civilian — no taxpayer — has the right to ask, after 10 years of America at war, why we still are there.
In the same LA Times story about the helicopter crash, an unnamed special operations officer echoed Gen. Mattis’ message, assuring us that the men in special forces know that “every mission could be their last.
“And despite this tragic loss for the units and our nation, tonight their brothers will board helicopters and go out and do the work our country has asked of them. And they will continue to do so without hesitation or mental reservation as they go after the enemies that would do us harm.”
Maybe there is no such thing as a reticent warrior. How could you be when your own life hangs in the balance? I am grateful for the brave men and women who have no say in the battles they wage. The responses from Mattis and the unnamed officer, however, are vivid reminders of why noncombatants must have ultimate control over military budgets.
McClatchy newspapers reported that the Pentagon is investigating whether it’s a mistake “to send a large, lumbering Chinook helicopter into a Taliban firefight.” Again, I echo Webster’s admonishment that anger is not an argument, but I offer it as a reminder for me more than for anyone else.
I struggle mightily with the steady stream of Department of Defense alerts filling my inbox with the names of the newly dead. Most of them were in their 20s or early 30s. Each of them was somebody else’s child.
Would the war be over if we had a military draft? That’s the dinner party question batted around for a while and then tucked away before dessert. We know full well there’s no way any of our kids will be forced to serve. Please pass the wine.
Some of us do remember what it was like to grow up in a working-class neighborhood full of boys who had no choice but to fight in Vietnam. Ashtabula County, Ohio, where I was a kid, lost 26 boys and the futures of countless others to that war. Every family on our block knew who was fighting there and who didn’t make it home alive. It was a time of prayers and potlucks and parental warnings never to bring up the war in certain homes.
The war in Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular here at home. According to the polls, anyway, which is the only way we’d know it.
The longer we remain silent the more invested we become in the war we claim to loathe. Every American owns it, including the many young, draft-free adults who love to criticize their parents’ wars, as if their youthful indifference carries no cost.
To those young people, I say this: If you are not vocal in opposition to the war, you are supporting it. If my saying that angers you, I can only say, “Well, it’s about time.”
It’s true that anger is not an argument.
It might, however, be the only way to bring our men and women home.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.