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Is the Afghanistan surge worth the lives that will be lost?

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I always read the names. Some days there are only three or four, sometimes as many as 10 or so. I note the ages and their ranks, and also any disparity between the two. I imagine a calamity lurks in the background -- some bad time that somehow resulted in loss of rank. The names I am referring to, of course, are those of the war dead.

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There are so few of them -- so few that in total for Iraq and Afghanistan we cannot even approach some individual battles of the Civil War or World War II, during which more than 19,000 Americans died at the Battle of the Bulge alone. In eight years, about 5,300 American service members have died in the two wars we now are fighting, the vast majority of them in Iraq. In that period, more than 250,000 Americans died in traffic accidents.

In her book "This Republic of Suffering," Drew Gilpin Faust wrote about how the vast numbers of dead affected the North and South during and after the Civil War. About 620,000 from both sides died in that war -- about 2 percent of the American population, equivalent to 6 million fatalities today. The carnage deeply affected the nation because it touched just about everyone.

The paradox now is that something similar is happening -- not because of so many fatalities but so few. Of the Civil War dead, about half remained unknown -- often buried where they fell, a blanket and a hole creating what we now call sacred ground. Today, no one is unknown. There is always a name and rank -- and a family and a home town, and often a picture of a face that can be studied and wondered about.

The fact that the dead are relatively few in number makes it possible to single them out. The names I read in the newspapers -- Gwaltney, Nichols and Taylor on a recent day -- could be published because there were just three of them. What newspaper could publish all the names of the dead of a Civil War battle, an average of about 600 per day, or even one in Vietnam -- 26 per day, 182 per week? What television news show could scroll the names of hundreds of dead? Brevity makes mourning possible.

The ability to individualize -- no more Unknowns -- has undoubtedly changed America. We remain a religious nation but not as we were in the Civil War, when the dying tried to take comfort from the certainty -- it's true, isn't it? -- that a better life awaited them. Religion has lost that sort of mystery. Ministers have less authority. Dying has become harder.

In contrast, our enemies take religious solace in their own deaths. It is not that they don't value life; it's just that they don't value this life.

In Iraq, no one knows the number of suicide bombings -- thousands of them, certainly. In Afghanistan, too, suicide bombings are frequent. There is really no such thing as an American suicide bomber. We don't extol the bomber and parade his or her children before the TV cameras so that other children will envy them for the death of a parent. This is odd to us. This is chilling to us. This is downright repugnant.

Can we fight such an enemy? This is the unstated question in all that back and forth about the surge in Afghanistan. Maybe we have come to cherish life too much. The question for Afghanistan is not whether it's worth a trillion dollars or several hundred additional American lives. It's whether it's worth a single additional life, the one you can isolate on MaptheFallen.org or the one the news programs decide to feature or the names that scroll by so slowly, each one with a picture so that you can wonder about their lives and worry about the cost of it all.

This is the question Barack Obama has to answer. We all know the Taliban are misogynist thugs aligned with al-Qaeda -- and all that is bad. But what we don't know is whether any of that is worth the life we see on the nightly news or read about in the newspaper.

Each day, when I read the names and pause to wonder about their lives, I have to wonder when I will be able to stop reading -- when there are no more names to read or simply too many of them?

cohenr@washpost.com


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