Dana Milbank
Opinion writer March 13, 2012

On a flawless spring morning, President Obama stood in the Rose Garden to urge against a hasty retreat from Afghanistan.

We have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war,” he said Tuesday, resisting the calls for a quick exit that were prompted by the slaying of Afghan civilians by a rogue U.S. soldier on Sunday. “Already we’re scheduled to remove 23,000 troops by the end of this summer, following the 10,000 that we withdrew last year.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

A few minutes after Obama spoke those words, I crossed the Potomac to visit with some of those who have already come home, under circumstances nobody wanted. After a decade of wars, more than 800 of them now rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

Most of them are in Section 60, where I counted 21 rows of headstones of the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead, beginning with Staff Sgt. Brian Craig, killed in Kandahar in April 2002. On Tuesday afternoon, Section 60 got its newest resident, 23-year-old Sgt. William Stacey, killed on foot patrol on his fourth deployment to Afghanistan.

They buried him — near a young magnolia tree that will shade his headstone in future years — with the too-familiar rituals: white horses, wooden caisson, marching platoon, rifle volleys, Taps. There were the tearful parents, the grief-stricken fiancee, the teenage sister holding flowers and the cremated remains of a young man who left behind an open-in-case-of-death letter.

“My death did not change the world; it may be tough for you to justify its meaning at all,” he wrote. “But there is a greater meaning to it.”

Washington is debating that greater meaning and whether all the trouble — the civilian killings, the Koran burnings, the feckless Karzai government — justifies continued fighting in Afghanistan even though al-Qaeda has been routed and public opinion on the conflict has soured. There’s no good answer, but no policymaker should make a decision about the war without strolling through Section 60. Its rows tell the story of this generation’s wars: A few headstones from Afghanistan quickly yield to monuments mostly from Iraq; then, toward the end, the Afghanistan dead return.

Among stones topped by crosses, Stars of David and the occasional crescent, a makeshift museum has been built by friends and family of the fallen. A helium balloon boasting “30” floated above the tombstone of Thomas J. Brown, whose 30th birthday would have been Tuesday; he died in 2008 in Iraq, and his grave had a fresh arrangement of pink roses, yellow daisies and white gladioluses, with a note: “Miss you. Love always, Mom.” A photo taped to the back of his headstone showed him smiling in his combat helmet two days before his death.

Arlington authorities, perhaps recognizing the significance of Section 60 and its young dead, have exempted the graves from their policy against decorations. On Tuesday, there were purple Mardi Gras beads, crosses fashioned from toothpicks, laminated photos, heart stickers, decorative stones, pinwheels, plush toys, a can of chewing tobacco, a marathon finisher’s medal, a plastic leprechaun hat, even a cat-shaped yard ornament. A red T-shirt at one grave said, “R.I.P. Big Mac.” A seashell was inscribed: “To my big brother. Love, Your little sister XOXO.”

A prayer to Joan of Arc decorated the grave of a young woman killed in Iraq. On the stone of Sgt. Karl Campbell, an Army ranger who fell in 2010 at age 34, is a school photo of his son, missing a front tooth, and a letter in a plastic bag, to “my best friend always.”

Among the most heartbreaking is the stone of Spec. Douglas Jay Green, killed in Afghanistan in August at age 23. A Valentine’s Day card had a quotation from Hermann Hesse, “If I know what love is, it is because of you,” and a handwritten message: “Doug, This year you would have been home for Valentine’s Day. . . . But I have to remind myself that ‘could haves’ and ‘would haves’ were never supposed to be.”

Nearby, an older couple sat on fresh sod, grieving over a soldier buried so recently there was no headstone. They stepped aside as the caisson approached with Sgt. Stacey’s remains. The young man, the son of college professors, was to have returned to Camp Pendleton by now, his overseas deployments done. He planned to attend a Marine Corps ball in April with his fiancee.

Instead, she joined Stacey’s sister and parents in accepting folded flags Tuesday afternoon from a sergeant major on bended knee. Among those paying their respects were several young Marines, one in a wheelchair.

In the letter to his family, Stacey wrote of his service: “If my life buys the safety of a child who will one day change this world, then I know that it was all worth it.”

The nation must soon decide whether Stacey’s hope remains true.

danamilbank@washpost.com