For the last 15 of my more than 40 years as a reporter, the Pentagon would auto-email me casualty reports whenever a member of the U.S. military was killed overseas. It was dreary duty, opening them up and hoping no one I knew was KIA…and then feeling guilty because what the heck did it matter if I knew them or not?
In the tough years following the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, there was a flood of such missives. Thankfully, they’ve slowed to a sad drip these days.
But that perspective shows how spoiled we’ve become.
There used to be a time when hundreds of Americans died every day in combat. It happened during World War I’s Meuse-Argonne offensive, and World War II’s Battle of the Bulge and D-Day. “A single death is a tragedy,” Joseph Stalin purportedly said, in a much different context. “A million deaths is a statistic.”
But an accounting of the 60 most deadly battles for U.S. troops includes only a pair from Vietnam—and nothing since. Before Vietnam, there were simply too many deaths in combat to focus on the individual troops. Families did their mourning with far less fanfare, not that that’s the right word, than they do today.
I recall when I think that changed. It was June 27, 1969, and LIFE magazine printed photos of the 242 U.S. military personnel who had been killed in Vietnam between May 28 and June 3.
The week included Memorial Day, back when it was bolted to May 30 every year (bizarre how the more solemn Memorial Day flops around the calendar, while Veterans Day remains fixed at November 11, after a wayward spell in the 1970s when it was observed on the fourth Monday in October).
”The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week's Toll,” LIFE’s cover line read over the mussed hair of Army Specialist William C. Gearing, Jr.
“…In a time when the numbers of Americans killed in this war—36,000—though far less than the Vietnamese losses, have exceeded the dead in the Korean War, when the nation continues week after week to be numbed by a three-digit statistic which is translated to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country, we must pause to look into the faces,” LIFE said that week. “More than we must know how many, we must know who. The faces of one week's dead, unknown but to families and friends, are suddenly recognized by all in this gallery of young American eyes.”
It’s hard to recall in today’s atomized media world the thunderclap that LIFE piece represented. Readers praised it for acknowledging individual sacrifice, while others decried it for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. President Nixon had been in office only six months when it was published. He had pledged “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam” as a candidate. Yet more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops would die before the U.S. pulled out, two years before South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnam communists, less than six years after its publication.
A third of a century later, in 2003, I co-wrote a piece for TIME that recounted the U.S. troops’ lives lost in Iraq in the first week of July, three months after the U.S. invasion.
There were seven of them, 3% of the 242 who died in Vietnam in the week LIFE had commemorated.
As war has changed—from massed armies fighting one another to small units, often including guerrillas and other non-state combatants—the number of U.S. troops killed on the battlefield has thankfully fallen. In the strange emotional math inside each of us, that makes these rarer passings all the more sorrowful. Newspapers and television can take the time to tell their stories as individuals.
Or perhaps it is the nature of war itself that alters our perception. The All-Volunteer Force, now more than 40 years old, has acted as a centrifuge, separating citizens from colonels. The nation has chosen to subcontract its fighting out to what is increasingly a warrior class.
That surely leads to a more professional force, although one can wonder how much its peculiar makeup makes possible never-ending wars like the one in Afghanistan. So long as casualties are relatively low—and American families don’t have to involuntarily surrender their children to a draft—the fighting continues on ad infinitum.
“There is a widening gulf in the United States today between the public and those who serve in the military and fight the nation’s wars,” writes Amy Schafer in a just-released study for the Center for a New American Security. “Though the populace expresses a great deal of trust in the military, the number of citizens with a direct connection to the military is shrinking, suggesting that respect for the military is inversely proportional to participation in it.”
No doubt that stems, in part, from an uneasy guilt some Americans feel for having no skin in the game. That has played a role in the over-the-top hosannas civilians now give military personnel (even though most of those in uniform find it discomfiting). It leads to the drama of a president who never served praising the widow of a Navy SEAL earlier this year.
You can sense this growing insularity in the Air Force’s decision this month to issue special “Gold Star” military ID cards to the families of the fallen for access to bases normally closed to civilians. The Navy began such a program in 2014, and the Army in 2015. Apparently, society at large no longer offers sufficient succor for survivors.
Six U.S. troops have been killed in combat so far in 2017. What is amazing is that they died in four different countries: three in Afghanistan, and one each in Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. “They are the best among us—the less than 1% willing to stand and fight the wars for the other 99%,” Chuck Williams wrote May 12 in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, a hand-grenade toss from Fort Benning, the Army’s “home of the infantry.”
I can recall working on a TIME cover story in 1995 when the U.S. was on the verge of going to war in the Balkans.
While Americans loath war, they loath it even more when it seems purposeless. If there were no “vital national interest” at stake in the Balkans, they didn’t want U.S. troops dying there. We fought the Balkan wars in the 1990s from the air with minimal loss of U.S. lives, and the country went along with it.
But this is where the lengthy campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq diverge. The Taliban (our key foe in Afghanistan) are not the Islamic State (who we are fighting in Iraq, and Syria). After all, we are willing to negotiate with the Taliban, but not the Islamic State. Americans sense this difference, and that is why support for the grinding war against the Taliban will dissolve more quickly than that against ISIS.
Meanwhile, regardless of the merit ultimately accorded these wars by history, the men and women of the U.S. military will continue to fight and die for their nation.
The Pentagon keeps close track of their passing. The accounting is precise, and, as far as I have been able to determine, complete. Many times as a reporter, I’d get whispers that some number of U.S. troops had been killed in a secret operation. I’ve never been able to confirm those reports.
In part, that’s rooted in the U.S. military’s ethos never to leave a comrade behind. It’s especially important, on Memorial Day, never to leave the memory of the more than 1 million fallenbehind, either. No matter how they died.