The Forgotten

I recently received the very sad news that a member of my high school alumni community lost her husband to enemy fire in Afghanistan. My best friend serves in the same unit. I’ve served in their area of operations (Wardak and Logar provinces). The area is geographically similar to Flagstaff, Arizona — painted desert that gives way to towering snow capped mountains. The summers find the land arid, stifling hot, and swarming with violence. The winters turn the land into a desolate desert, snow and ice cover everything and make basic driving nearly impossible — the fighting screams to a halt upon the first snowfall.

I had dinner last week with with Dr. John Nagl. I enjoyed our lively discussion of geopolitics and our various experiences fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Towards the end of our dinner, Dr. Nagl pointed to his copy of my book and said “you know, no-one will ever read this, right?” I nodded in agreement — sad to acknowledge that few will ever read the story of my deployment or the heroics of the men with whom I served. And then I said, “that’s because no-one really cares. If I had written about Snooki’s pregnancy I’m sure infinitely more people would read it.” Dr. Nagl chuckled and said he totally agreed.

My best friend’s unit has lost several soldiers since deploying to Afghanistan this past June.  Yet, if our news coverage is any indication of what holds American’s interest, then we clearly care more about Bristol Palin returning to Dancing With The Stars than we do about our war dead in Afghanistan. Not once have I read in national media coverage of our latest war dead — a sobering practice that used to be a routine part of our national news coverage. I cannot imagine a scenario in which Walter Cronkite would be allocated the time to broadcast his famous Vietnam editorial if he had to devote precious broadcast time to covering the latest “news” concerning the celebrities of his day. Moreover, if Brian Williams gave such an editorial today regarding our ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, would Americans notice or care?

We’ve replaced acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice of our fellow citizens with obsessing over “celebrities” who are famous for reasons I fail to comprehend. What makes Bristol Palin so important she commands such attention? She’s the daughter of a failed former vice-Presidential candidate and a poster-child for unplanned teenage pregnancy. What else has she accomplished other than being an example of how not to live one’s life? Why do Americans seem to care more about her than our war dead and injured?

Dr. Nagl is right — no-one will likely ever read my book, which is a shame, because mine isn’t the only one that will never get read. An entire generation is returning home from these wars writing about profound lessons learned. The decision to go to war is the most grave and important a democracy will ever make. And yet, we’d rather concern ourselves with the “life” of a teenage mother than gaining insight and knowledge into how we’re projecting ourselves to the rest of the world. How are we supposed to explain that choice to our children? Sorry, Snooki’s pregnancy seemed way more important than solving our debt crises or fighting the next war better than the last?

I for one refuse to leave our nation worse off than I found it — we owe at least that to our children. But that means we must start actually caring about solving our problems. We must care as much about the national debt and military conflicts as we do about who dances on TV during prime time.

And yes, I get that as a soldier, I volunteered, and thus I shouldn’t complain if no-one cares about my service or anyone else’s. But,  please know that none of us signed up to achieve fame or glory, we wanted to protect and defend our country. But never did we think that when we took our oath we’d lose the attention of our fellow citizens to the trials of human trash played out on prime time TV. We understood that we’d do the bulk of the heavy lifting, but the least you could do is pay some attention when one of us dies defending the rest of us.

We fight so that our fellow citizens can remain free. We’ve asked nothing in return. But maybe we should ask something — that our fellow citizens pay us and our conflicts as much mind as they do the Snookis, Bristol Palins, and Lindsey Lohans of the world. We’d be infinitely better off if Americans knew as much about its wars as they do about Kim Kardashian. Thus I ask this one thing of my fellow citizens – please please please support us by paying actual attention to us. The brave soldiers who died this and all the weeks past deserve it more than the Bristol Palins of the world ever will.

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About Matt Zeller

Matt Zeller, a native of Rochester, New York, is a consultant on alternative energy and defense issues, working in northern Virginia. His latest book, Watches Without Time (Just World Books, 2012), gives a vivid description of what he experienced while serving as an embedded combat adviser with the Afghan security forces in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 2008. Matt is a Captain in the US Army Reserve and a former officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was the Democrat candidate for Congress in 2010 in NY's 29th Congressional District.
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