How little we care for the families of those killed in our wars


There is a famous, if likely apocryphal, story of Lydia Bixby, the Massachusetts mother believed to have lost five sons fighting in the Civil War who received a letter from President Lincoln. “I feel how weak and sterile my words must be in an attempt to divert you from the grief of such a crushing loss,” the president wrote. The words of one of our most eloquent Chief Comforters exude human empathy.

This Memorial Day will be the first in 20 years that the United States has not actively waged a ground war in Central Asia or the Middle East. Memorial Day, however most Americans observe it in practice, is an annual occasion for sober meditation on the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to this country. We should also take this opportunity to reflect on the role that each of us plays in the civic life of this republic and in its public square, an invitation to reflect on the impact of our actions on those who serve.

Among the thousands of skirmishes and bombings that have claimed the lives of young Americans since 2001, there is one episode of violence and loss from 2017 that sticks in my mind more than most. In October of that year, Sgt. The David T. Johnson was kill during an exchange of fire when his unit was ambushed by guerrillas linked to the Islamic State in Niger.

This file photo provided by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command shows Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in an ambush on October 4, 2017 in Niger. (US Army Special Operations Command via AP)

Johnson’s case has garnered national attention thanks to the sitting president who, when he called his wife, Myeshia Johnson, to offer his condolences, would have forgot Johnson’s name and said her late husband “knew what he was getting into.” Trump then publicly challenged the mourners’ account. “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke her name from the start, without hesitation! tweeted. As David Graham of The Atlantic Noted at the time, Trump treated Johnson’s widow very respectfully as a liar. The contrast to the first Republican president, master of both the English language and basic decency, couldn’t be more shocking.

I wrote about this imbroglio as a microcosm of all that was wrong with the approach of the public and the media when it came to thinking about supporting the military. There was an outpouring of outrage and reflection on Trump’s failure to muster even an iota of decorum and on the incoherent, factually incorrect, defense of the president by John Kelly, then chief of staff of the White House, himself the father of a killed American marine. (It should be noted that three years later, Kelly would be fully repudiate his former boss and call him a threat to democracy.)

What there has been much less discussion about is the actual material circumstances of Johnson’s death. How was an American serviceman killed fighting in a country where, on paper, the United States was not involved in any ongoing conflict? Why was the public conscience so distracted by a question of protocol that no one questioned whether Johnson’s sacrifice was really in the service of a coherent foreign policy goal?

Coming back from war is like landing on another planet. When I returned from a deployment in Afghanistan ten years ago, I felt the absence of conflict in the public consciousness as the absence of a limb – how could people go about their lives without thinking about what was done with their tax money on their behalf? I remember scribbling past gossip stories on Baby Boo Boo at the bottom of google news feed to read the latest casualties from where I had been a few weeks prior. The abrupt, inharmonious rapture in what felt like an incredibly insane alternate universe was a lonely experience.

Coming back from war is like landing on another planet.

I recently re-read my op-ed from October 2017. While I stand by the substance of the argument, there is something spiritually lacking in the words. I can’t help but feel that, in my short-sighted focus on a big picture issue, I have inadvertently downplayed the grief inflicted by the entire chain of events on the Johnson family. In my own experience, it was the lack of worry about years of conflict that was troubling. How much worse would it have been, though, to have a deluge of public attention swirling around your most painful moment?

Losing a loved one in war is one thing; losing a loved one in war and then having the most powerful person in the land – the very person by whose authority that loved one was sent to die – disrespecting you in private, then grossly trolling you in front of the world whole, is another thing entirely. The Johnsons’ private grief has become a public spectacle, the entire media ecosystem an engine meant to relentlessly remind them of their loss and underscore the contempt of this country’s leaders for their very personal tragedy. It’s an exponential worsening of the trauma. There is no comparable episode in the history of our country.

On my small scale, I contributed to the maelstrom of noise and the devaluation of the loss of the Johnson family. So many talking heads five years ago completely ignored La David — made his death a story about yet another presidential gaffe; I reduced it to a bullet point in a foreign policy discussion. That’s what I ponder on this Memorial Day: how, in the frenetic whirlwind of current events, the families of the thousands kill in combat (or at their own hands) since 9/11, become collateral damage in our efforts to win the debate. It’s something I’m sorry about, something I hope to learn from.

Losing a loved one in war is one thing; losing a loved one in war and then having the most powerful person in the land…disrespecting you…is quite another thing.

It has been 10 years since I was deployed in Afghanistan. During this time, thousands more – many of whom were children when I was sworn in as a naval officer at 22 – cycled across this country, fellow travelers on adventure fueled by what looked like a bottomless pit of public indifference and debauched defense. contracts. None returned the same. Many never returned at all. I am grateful on this Memorial Day that the planes carrying bodies from the mountains and deserts of this country have ceased to fly, that another generation of American servicemen are spared (for now) from the endless quagmire. But I am not optimistic.

Both in style and substance, our consideration for the suffering of the loved ones of those killed in our wars is almost non-existent. We would rather they were invisible lest they remind us of the ugly truth for who and what we are voting for.

To Myesha Johnson, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, and to all those who have known and loved La David, know that this year, I especially cry for you. May we all pause today and remember the thousands of other families and friends of those sent overseas never to return and remember that each of us bears some responsibility in the sea unquantifiable agonies inflicted upon them.

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