In the White House, a president sits with his brain trust of advisers, military brass and other assorted experts mulling over how to wage war, battle terrorists and otherwise prevail in the growing slogfest in Afghanistan.
They deal in numbers. How many more soldiers are needed? How many fewer? How much longer? Body counts. Damage assessments. It's the cost/benefit analysis of warfare.
At home, we cringe. Like thousands and thousands and too many more thousands of Americans, we have an investment on the battlefield — a good family friend, a good and decent man stationed so far away in a medieval land, serving his country.
For us, for the friends and families of the 68,000 troops serving in Afghanistan, the numbers are more than a linear chart — they are very personal.
We are not unique. But we are consistent. With every news account out of Afghanistan reporting the loss of another American soldier yet unnamed until next of kin can be notified — we cringe. We all cringe. Could it be — our friend? Our husband? Our son? Our daughter? Our wife? Our brother?
Every few days, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer runs a tally, an honor role of the latest war dead. The fallen are young, some barely out of high school, some older career military, very much like our friend, who have dedicated their lives — literally — to the calling of the uniform.
When a fatality occurs within a unit, the Pentagon shuts down all communication between the surviving soldiers and the outside world until family members can be contacted. These are the cruel witching hours of unbearable anxiety for our friend's wife. She has spent many a sleepless night waiting for a knock on the door or the phone to ring.
John Milton was right when he wrote: "They also serve who only stand and wait." Her battlefield is in the heart. Her courage under fire no less profound.
In Washington at the Pentagon and within the confines of Central Command in Tampa, decisions about troop levels are considered against the backdrop of byzantine geopolitical and long-term national security interests. The shifting sands of alliances, the stability of neighboring Pakistan, the status of al-Qaida, the festering influence of the Taliban, are all factored into what to do. What to do? The midnight oil burns bright and long at the nation's think tanks. And perhaps that is as it should be.
At home, we cringe.
Our friend was deployed to Afghanistan in order to assist the populace to prepare for the country's recent elections. Or put another way, he was sent into harm's way to get shot at, to potentially get killed, so that the citizenry could exercise a democratic ideal of voting for its leaders.
And yet all the elections, riddled with fraud, managed to accomplish was to leave in power a corrupt, incompetent figurehead in fancy robes. Our friend was supposed to be willing to die for that?
As the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the Taliban continues to grow in influence. Afghanistan leads the world in the production of heroin. Children, especially girls, are maimed and murdered for simply going to school. Women continue to be oppressed. And our friend is supposed to be willing to die for all of this?
During his years as an anti-Vietnam War activist, Sen. John Kerry once posed this question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" It was a cogent question to pose in 1971. It still is in 2009.
To be sure, there are probably some very sound strategic arguments to continue — and perhaps even enhance — our presence in Afghanistan. Still, what do you say to the loved ones grieving over a flag-draped coffin? Be proud. Be proud your husband, your son, your brother, your daughter — your friend — died in order to keep Hamid Karzai in his Kabul bunker?
I have no idea if this is a commonly held belief, but the notion of sending more troops into Afghanistan to fight alongside our friend would be a lot more palatable if there was some genuine sense of accomplishment to be gained, some tangible feeling of a mission to be realized, some hope that all this horrible cost to the nation of blood and anguish was truly worth it.
What is so worrisome is, I simply don't know. And I don't think those in the corridors of power know, either.
What I do know from the most selfish of motives is that I want my friend to come home in one piece, home to his wife, to his dogs, to his kitchen where he loves to cook, to the dinner table where we drink and eat and laugh, to come home to us.
In the meantime we are consigned to stand and wait. And cringe.