- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The remains of 30 American troops killed in action in Afghanistan returned to U.S. soil yesterday. They died Saturday when the helicopter in which they had been rushing to reinforce hotly engaged U.S. forces was shot down. Their sacrifice is an unwelcome reminder of the price paid by a country at war.

It’s unfortunate that it takes a tragedy of this magnitude to focus national attention on the sacrifices being made daily by American service personnel. U.S. troops are bringing the fight to the enemy on a daily basis, and the fight is increasingly deadly. U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan have increased every year since 2006, and last year 499 were killed. That’s 10 times the number who died in 2003. The amount of media coverage of Saturday’s loss is due to several factors. The fact that it was the deadliest such event of the Afghan War, the 22 of the fallen who were elite U.S. Navy SEALS, and the proximity to the SEAL-led raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound all contributed to this loss being deemed “newsworthy.”

There have been other such events that didn’t garner the same press attention. On Jan. 26, 2005, 30 U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman died when a CH-53 Sea Stallion crashed in Anbar Province, Iraq. Six other troops were killed elsewhere that same day, making it America’s bloodiest day to date in Iraq. The 36 troops who died in Afghanistan in July 2011 were given little coverage because they returned home singly or in small numbers, but their deaths are no less heartbreaking.

Our horrible loss on Saturday stands out in part because casualties in unconventional wars tend to be more limited than in conventional struggles. Losing 30 Americans at once is shocking because we are blessedly unused to it. It was not always this way. Exactly 149 years ago yesterday, Union and Confederate forces fought an engagement at Cedar Mountain, also known as Slaughter’s Mountain, south of Culpeper Court House, Va. Union troops under Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks (who later would become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives) fought a determined but losing battle against rebels led by Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. At the end of the battle, there were nearly 3,100 collective casualties, of them 545 killed. This confrontation is barely known except to military-history buffs. Arlington National Cemetery is dotted with large headstones listing the names of World War II aircrews lost in the dozens at a time during bombing missions over Germany and Japan, a portion of the tens of thousands of casualties suffered in the skies over 65 years ago.

It is noteworthy that there was no media coverage of the dignified transfer of remains yesterday at Dover Air Force Base, but this was not a reversal of administration policy as reported elsewhere. Due to the catastrophic nature of the crash that took the lives of the troops, the remains were returned in an officially unidentified status. Even the intermingled body parts of the Afghan troops on the mission were sent to Dover. Consequently, the next of kin were not in a position to grant the required approval for media access. President Obama, however, did make sure to take along his personal photographer.


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