As we make final preparations for the holidays, 68,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan. On Christmas Day, some might get a decent meal and a little booze at a base where they can Facebook relatives; others will be stuck in inhospitable outposts littering the remote countryside. They’ll wake up, in the morning or evening, sore and tired, and arm themselves to the teeth before walking patrol through arid landscapes where nothing happens, except when it does, which is when they are liable to lose a leg or an arm with such frequency that it’s something they joke about.
Every month, between 200 and 500 Afghan civilians die, too, mostly at the hands of indiscriminate Taliban attacks, but always because of the war. When the civilians are dying, our troops are often the ones on hand to pick up the pieces. As our medics hold the tourniquets, American young men and women stand around watching the perimeter, staying stoic, trying not to hate, but hating all the same. According to the year-end report released by the Pentagon, the war has moved to the hinterlands, which may be why most people have forgotten about it.
The idea of demand-based media is pretty repugnant, but it’s a reality. Coverage of the Afghan War is at 2 percent, even though if you measured story-value by body count it would still be on the front page a lot of days. The new media cycle—as I’ve felt more and more watching my real-time analytics window obsessively —is aggregator-fueled, moves at breathtaking speed, and obeys the laws of the bots. Within an hour of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, there were lots of false identifications of the shooter and his connection to Sandy Hook Elementary School, hundreds of reporters strafing Facebook for personal information, pages and pages of search results, even official statements from the governor and senator-elect of Virginia in my inbox. Why? Because everyone was trying to keep America’s children safe? Or because traffic was spiking?
I figured I’d end this week reflecting on the experience of my dad, who like Elliott Woods, the subject of our feature, was an educated soldier in a foggy war and wasn’t exactly in the shit but learned what it was like to watch his comrades die in fairly ignominious circumstances and then come back to a country where none of it mattered, or maybe, even worse, where his participation was seen as a sign that he lacked intelligence. But the more I’ve thought about the story we’re telling and the one from Connecticut that’s commanding the nation’s attention, I’ve found myself reflecting on violence. Killing is cultural. It’s accepted in some instances and not in others. The thing that connects the indiscriminate type that we can never explain to the highly planned type that comes with a rationale is the survivors, who live with it every day.