It’s been a long time since we had to confront this many U.S. military deaths. Not long enough.
Certain things stand out about the 13 military service men and women who were killed in a terrorist attack in Kabul this week.
There are several proverbs, from all over the world, to describe the sensation many of us are feeling now.
One is, “You can never go home again.” And that’s a hard truth. It means that even if your old childhood home still exists somewhere, preserved in amber and plastic sheeting, with everything just as you left it, you can never really go back to your old childhood bedroom, ever again.
Your childhood bedroom might be exactly the same; but you will be different.
Someone more Zen, and perhaps less fatalistic, might express the same sentiment as: “You can never enter the same river twice.”
This illustration is in many ways more apt. After all, your childhood bedroom, such as it ever was, is probably not frozen in amber somewhere, preserved just as you left it. The river of time has swept on in the years since and swept every particle of that old bedroom along with it.
The river metaphor has a double meaning: You can never enter the same river twice because the river is always moving and will be different- from bedrock to sedimentary load- every single time you enter it. And you will be different, too. Because our lives are also always moving through time, forward like that flowing river and we are ever changing day to day, even moment by moment.
We, as a nation and as individuals, have experienced hearing about the deaths of U.S. service-members killed in the line of duty before. Depending on how old you are, perhaps many times before.
But that terrible river Styx, that vestigial horror of war, is always different; each lost life a world unto itself, each grief-stricken family a whole universe in which a life-sustaining center star has been snuffed out violently, cruelly, long before its time.
And wading into that river once again for the first time, we too are different.
It is with new eyes that we look upon the faces of those 13 people killed in Afghanistan.
Were they always this young?
Some of them looked barely old enough to drive. They had, perhaps, been able to vote in one presidential election. Surely that is far too young to be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for one’s country.
True, they enlisted of their own volition. The possibility of death on the battlefield or by a snipers bullet, via IED or ambush, is one that all soldiers must accept as one potential price of service.
But people that young don’t usually think they are going to die, do they? Not really.
“Everybody has got to die,” quipped author William Saroyan while still in the robustness of his youth; “but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”
Saroyan, alas, was wrong. He passed away in 1981.
Most of us have felt that way, to some extent- especially the young. Many of us are lucky enough live long enough to grow out of it. At 19, we skied down a mountainside without a single qualm. Now, we think of what spending 6 months in the hospital might be like and poor Sonny Bono.
The 13 young people who died this week, far from home in Afghanistan, didn’t think they were going to die that day; almost no one under a certain age ever does. They die with clean laundry folded in the their bureau drawers and food in their cabinets. Young people are especially adept at compartmentalizing death as some faraway place to which they maysomeday deign to go.
Plenty of other cultures have a healthier grasp on death and dying than American culture in the West. It is easy to understand one reason why.
Consider some of the religious iconography from faith traditions in India. Some of the deities depicted have elements not considered religious in nature by the Abrahamic traditions, with which many of us are far more familiar.
Shiva is sometimes shown wearing a necklace of human skulls, for instance, symbolizing the cycles of birth and death- among other things. Other deities have similar death-related reminders that the human body is a vulnerable, and temporary, vessel.
It’s why ancient philosophers were often depicted in art with a human skull sitting on their desk. It’s why Julius Caesar had an aide periodically whisper to him, during grand parades and state functions: “Someday, you too will die.”
They weren’t being morbid. Those were memento mori; reminders of death, of mortality and the urgency of passing time. Symbols of the bitter inescapable reality of the human life cycle; birth, maturity, death.
We don’t like memento mori. We don’t like to be reminded of death. We certainly don’t like any reminders that the ultimate injustice of an untimely death can come for anyone at anytime.
Most of us just try not to think about it.
But this week, 13 memento moris showed up in our news feeds. Thirteen reminders that the human life cycle isn’t always even as neat and tidy as “birth, maturity, death”- a process neither neat nor tidy.
Thirteen young people will not get to experience “maturity” as nature, or God, or the Universe, or whatever you want to call it, intended.
People die every day, some might say. While that is true, death by violence is different. A violent death experienced by someone in service to their fellow man- be it soldiers helping a last-ditch emergency evacuation effort or doctors executed in a Kabul hospital by terrorists in 2017- is even more tragic.
As unspeakably tragic as a separate terrorist attack on a nearby Doctors Without Borders hospital in 2020 in which two newborn infants, along with their mothers and nurses, were gunned down. Attacks on hospitals- for which the Taliban always denies responsibility, though the Afghan government never believed them- have become a vile and gruesome trend. Gunmen disguised as doctors and police officers have killed dozens of people, if not hundreds, this way over the past few years in Afghanistan.
The deaths of U.S. military service members in Afghanistan is even worse than a great human tragedy, worse than a reminder of the precariousness of life; it is also a stinging reminder of our responsibility for this outcome.
It is the price they paid for our collective willingness to rush to war after 9/11. It is the price they paid for our collective willingness to stay in that war, largely ignoring whatever was happening in far-away Afghanistan; even after the Afghanistan Papers.
This loss is a tragedy of the highest order. A man-made disaster on par with a natural one. It hurts.
And we are seeing it with new eyes; our new diversity training isn’t a light switch which can be flicked on and off at one or the other political party’s electoral convenience.
The faces of the people killed are devastatingly young; and diverse.
If we are judging by skin color, as many progressives are, it must be noted that the faces of the people killed in the line of duty represented the diversity of the American population.
The thirteen American lives lost were the sons and daughters of U.S. immigrants, of working-class families perhaps hoping to defray the outrageous costs of a college education, of families striving to make a better life for their next generation. Those killed were young fathers, mothers, brothers, sons.
“The stone will melt in tears, for I could not remain closed to you forever,” wrote the poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, on the subject of death. “I could not escape without being conquered. From the blue sky, a great eye will gaze down, to summon me in silence. I will receive death utterly at your feet.”
Perhaps that is what pains us most. The soldiers who were killed by terrorists this week are a reminder of both our ultimate responsibility and our ultimate powerlessness to change the inescapable permanence of what 13 families, and our nation, have lost.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)