There is a group of historical figures – Mark Twain, Einstein, Ben Franklin, and Winston Churchill come to mind – to whom so many quotes and anecdotes are attributed that it's difficult to separate the real from the incorrectly sourced from the apocryphal. With Abraham Lincoln, impossible is a better term than difficult. So many pieces of folksy wisdom are attributed to Honest Abe that he would have had to devote hours per day to clever sayings to concoct all of them. One of my favorite supposed-Lincoln anecdotes involves a dispatch he received from one of his generals after a brief engagement with Confederate forces in Kentucky. The telegram reported, "Good news, (name of town) taken, only 12 casualties." Lincoln's supposed reply was, "Not good news for the 12."
As the "official" American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to wind down, the casualties (U.S. or otherwise) drift even further from public consciousness. The fact that the wars have been ongoing for more than a decade certainly doesn't help, given the attention span of our media and the general public. As of this Memorial Day, the total number of U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan in 2013 is 53. Comparatively – nearly 4500 died in Iraq and 2227 have died so far in Afghanistan – it is tempting to look at this year as good news. And it is, in some sense. But it's not good news for those 53, their families, and everyone who knew them.
Whether or not the war is going well in the larger sense, there is no good news for Spc. Mitchell Daehling, 24, of Dalton, MA. He died on May 14, 2013 in Sanjaray Zhari, Kandahar when an improvised explosive device destroyed the vehicle he occupied with Spc. William Gilbert and Sgt. Jeffrey Baker, both of whom also died. Nothing that has happened in Afghanistan lately counts as good news for Spc. Daehling's widow, parents, siblings, and friends. There is no happy ending for them.
I do this annually on Memorial Day, and I always point out that the odds are overwhelmingly against any of us knowing the people whose names make up these casualty reports personally. I do not know Spc. Mitchell Daehling, and you don't either. We know nothing about him – whether he was a great guy or a jerk, whether he was funny or serious, whether he liked Coke or Pepsi. What we do know is that he is no longer alive. His death has an immediate cause that we readily understand – improvised explosives are a common hazard in this war, and he had the misfortune of being near one when it exploded. That should not stop us from remembering the less proximate causes – the political, economic, and social factors that combined to place him in Kandahar Province on May 14, 2013.
Memorial Day should be our annual reminder that the decisions our elected officials make and the knee-jerk reactions among the public have real consequences. The consequence, every time we commit ourselves to go to war, is that people who would otherwise be alive will end up dead. The costs of war are abstract for most of us, but very real for Mitchell Daehling and his loved ones. We hear a lot of florid talk on Memorial Day about honoring and remembering sacrifices. In my view, we honor their sacrifices best by remembering the chain of events and decisions that led to them.