In the midst of weeks of debate over the economy, jobs and the deficit, media and public attention have once again drifted from Afghanistan, even as the killing, and the stalemate, go on. I follow that war more closely than most, and even I cannot recall the president’s latest promise or when exactly he is supposed to announce the next step. Polls show the public is so obsessed with the economy that few call for getting out of our wars as a top priority, even though our military spending is a prime cause for our budget problems.
Yet when the top media commentators or veteran war reporters do discuss the Afghanistan war—e.g., Dexter Filkins, formerly of the New York Times and now at The New Yorker, on Bill Maher’s HBO show last Friday—they almost always describe it as a lost cause for the United States, or at least beyond our control. So I would like to update John Kerry’s famous question in 1971: “How do you ask someone to be the last American soldier to die for a mistake?”
This has caused me to wonder, Well, who was the last soldier to die for the Vietnam mistake? And what can we learn from that example in our previous “longest war”?
To my surprise, with a little research, I discovered that there is a consensus on who that individual was. We’ll get to his name in a moment, but what’s most relevant is that he died almost exactly—get ready—five years after that “mistake” was widely acknowledged. How many will die from now until the last American perishes in Afghanistan? Gallup and other polls show that a clear majority of Americans, for about five years now, have labeled the current mission in Afghanistan, in its ninth year, a “mistake.”
We are at a haunting juncture in the Afghan War. Forgive me for another “back in the day” reference—especially since Obama has claimed that “Afghanistan is not Vietnam”—but I recall very well that the public turned strongly against the Vietnam conflict only with the mass realization that young American lives were not only being lost but truly wasted.
Now, who was that last American to die in Vietnam?
According to Arlington National Cemetery, and numerous other sources, he was Army Lt. Col. William B. Nolde, a 43-year-old father of five. He was killed January 27, 1973, near An Loc—just eleven hours before the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords—when an artillery shell exploded nearby.
This is how Time magazine reported it the following week: “The last hours of the Viet Nam War took a cruel human toll. Communist and South Vietnamese casualties ran into the thousands. Four U.S. airmen joined the missing-in-action list when their two aircraft were downed on the last day. Another four Americans were known to have been killed—including Lt. Lieut. Colonel William B. Nolde, 43, of Mt. Pleasant, Mich., who was cut down in an artillery barrage at An Loc only eleven hours before the ceasefire. He was the 45,941st American to have died by enemy action in Viet Nam since 1961.”
His Wikipedia entry opens: “Born in Menominee, Michigan, Nolde was a professor of military science at Central Michigan University before joining the army. As an officer, he served in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, acting as an adviser to the South Vietnamese forces in the latter…. While other Americans lost their lives after the truce was enacted, these were not recorded as combat casualties. During his time in the armed forces, he had accumulated four medals, including the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit.”
His full military funeral was so momentous—it included the same riderless horse that accompanied President Kennedy’s coffin—it was covered on the front page of the New York Times on February 6, 1973. That story began: “The Army buried one of its own today, Bill Nolde. And with him, it laid to rest—symbolically, at least—its years of torment in Vietnam.”
How many more years of torment and wasted lives remain in Afghanistan?
Greg Mitchell’s latest book, his twelfth, is Atomic Cover-up: Two Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki & The Greatest Movie Never Made.