A transfer case containing the remains of a soldier who died in the Paktia province of Afghanistan is moved at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on September 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
After years of neglect from politicians and the media, the war in Afghanistan finally sprung into public view this week.
At Tuesday’s presidential press conference in the White House, reporters shouted questions about the war to Obama as he left the podium. House Speaker John Boehner mentioned it in his own press conference only hours later, angrily dropping the word “disgraceful;” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also spoke about the families of fallen troops in a floor speech on Tuesday in which he used the phrase “shameful and embarrassing.” He was joined in a rare bipartisan colloquy by Senator John McCain, who exclaimed he too was “ashamed” and “embarrassed.”
Meanwhile, virtually every mainstream news outlet had a story this week about troops being killed in Afghanistan. Many included images of caskets coming off military transport planes at Dover Air Force Base, and were peppered with the words “disgusting” and “outrage.” Well-read blogs on both the right and the left were in on the story, too.
But the occasion wasn’t the twelfth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, which happened to pass by on Monday virtually unnoticed: instead, the war has become a major talking point in the ongoing shutdown drama. Since the government is largely closed for business, the families of troops killed in Afghanistan aren’t receiving the standard death benefit payments, nor is the Pentagon paying for their trip to Dover to collect the remains of their loved one.
Indeed, it is outrageous that families of slain soldiers have to suffer this hardship on top of the monumental pain they must already feel. But perhaps the real outrage is that until now, nobody in Washington nor the media seemed to care much about their suffering.
The war in Afghanistan is in a particularly brutal phase. In eight years under President Bush, 630 American troops were killed in Afghanistan. But in less than five years under Obama, 1655 American troops have been killed. This year the 111 American fatalities already exceeds the total in every year under Bush except two. And as The Nation laid out in excruciating detail last month, the war has exacted a brutal toll on the civilian population of Afghanistan as well.
But as the war has ramped up, the media coverage has gone in the other direction. Even in 2010—the year in which more American troops were killed in Afghanistan than any other—the coverage of the war only occupied four percent of the nation’s news coverage from major outlets, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “It’s never passed the threshold to be a big story week in, week out for Americans,” Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of the project, said at the time. Now, the coverage has all but vanished.
In Washington, Afghanistan has remained similarly taboo. There was literally no meaningful debate in Congress over Obama’s decision to surge troops into Afghanistan in 2009, with Democrats largely backing the president and Republicans never eager to sound like doves. Nor has there been any policy debate about the course of the war since—even as troops continue to be deployed. Afghanistan was an invisible issue in the presidential campaign. And it’s very difficult to find instances of the politicians now claiming outrage actually saying something substantial about the course of the war over the past several years.
But now that the flag-draped coffins have become a good talking point, politicians are paying attention. No doubt cable news bookers have been trying to reach the families of the five troops killed in Afghanistan over the weekend to inquire about the temporary loss of federal death benefits.
Here is another question they could ask: would you rather the country debate whether the military death benefits should be restored, or why the soldier had to die in the first place?
Robert Scheer writes about the racism and cruelty that drives the GOP’s attack on the Affordable Care Act.