As we approach the second great American summer holiday weekend, I am reminded of a moving piece that I read over Memorial Day. In a New York Times op-ed titled “The Graves of the Marines I Lost,” J. Kael Weston reflects on late 2004 when he was the State Department’s representative in Falluja and participated in the decision to send American troops to secure polling places in western Iraq during elections in early January. One of the Marine helicopters transporting troops for that mission crashed on January 26, 2005, killing all 31 on board. The accident remains the single largest-casualty incident for either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
Weston’s article details his quest to visit the graves of all the soldiers killed in this accident—an accident for which he feels he bears some responsibility for having pushed to send the soldiers to the polling stations on that day. Weston pays moving tribute to the sacrifices made by American soldiers in its current, seemingly never-ending wars and in the wars of America’s past. He also considers the lives of the tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians that have been lost over the years that the United States has been at war.
What is perhaps most moving about this piece is that the author feels responsible for what was a terrible accident at a time when the people who made the decisions to send our forces there and to keep sending them there do not seem similarly burdened by accountability. Foreign policy officials from the George W. Bush administration who orchestrated the Iraq invasion routinely appear in the media as “experts” commenting on current policy; academics who supported the war and the surge(s) find ready homes in think tanks and policy schools; former senators who voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 can secure the presidential nomination of a major political party. Meanwhile the military is stretched so thin and its personnel have been so beaten up by years and years and years of deployments that it is currently struggling to fill positions in Iraq and Afghanistan—positions where these individuals will be risking their lives to (at best) prolong the inevitable. Paying tribute to those who lost their lives in America’s current wars is admirable, but these tributes ring hollow when elected policy makers and expert thought leaders do not take responsibility for both the choice to start these wars and the choice to let them drag on with no end in sight, despite several promises to end combat operations.
I was seventeen years old when the United States invaded Afghanistan. My ten-year college reunion was a few weeks ago, and we still have troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. My generation has been at war for the entirety of its adulthood and has supplied the manpower to keep these foolish conflicts going. We have the right to demand accountability from the generation of policy makers that chose these wars and that asks that we continue to fight them without any workable strategy for or possibility of winning sustainable political outcomes there. As we celebrate our independence this weekend, let us remember both the sacrifices made by Americans in service of this independence and the recent policy decisions that generated these sacrifices.