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Is Afghanistan the new Flanders Field?

Thousands of American service members-and tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians--died as a result of U.S. attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. Fallujah, taken by U.S. Marines at terrible cost in 2004, was back in insurgent hands this year. Obama says most U.S. combat forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The certain result is that there, as in Iraq, the cities and towns that American soldiers died to liberate will return to the control of the very forces we wanted to oust. Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, a former Air Force pilot who flew missions above Iraq and Afghanistan, summed up the feeling of many when he said, "We owe it to the Americans who gave their lives for our cause" not to walk away. But do we, in fact, owe this debt to the dead?

The 1915 poem "In Flanders Field"--the most influential literary words since the lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"--helped convince Britons to support World War I. Written in the voice of those who fell at Ypres, it declares, "Take up our quarrel with the foe / To you from failing hands we throw the torch / If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep." This reasoning has been used to sustain bloodshed in many nations and contexts. In her outstanding new book Japan 1941, Tokyo-born historian Eri Hotta reports that Hideki Tojo opposed Japanese withdrawal from China--the obstacle to normalization of Washington-Tokyo relations before Pearl Harbor--because he "insisted it was inconceivable for Japan to withdraw troops from China in light of all the heroic souls" already lost there.

War should continue for one reason alone: if it is a moral necessity. Those who died early in World War II had to be followed to the grave by others. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no moral clarity: soldiers can't even say what their mission is. It was always the case that whatever would happen when we left Iraq and Afghanistan, would happen when we left. Accepting this does not break faith with the fallen. The military dead do not wish to be joined. They have far too much company already.

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Atlantic, a columnist for ESPN, and the author, most recently, of The King of Sports.

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Title Annotation:TILTING at windmills
Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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