Combat Casualties and War Talk

The crowds of summertime tourists are mostly gone from Arlington National Cemetery now, and on a rainy weekday morning the yellowing leaves drift down silently to the manicured grass, and the rows of glistening white headstones wind over rolling hills into the distance and the silence seems immense and respectful. I had come to visit an old friend, a Marine sergeant who was killed in Afghanistan just over five years ago.

Across the way there in this national memorial park, cemetery workers are quietly preparing for the burial of the most recent American to die in battle, a Special Forces sergeant first class named Andrew Tarrant Weathers. He was severely wounded by rifle fire in a battle with insurgents in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Sept. 28 and medevacked to Germany. He died of his wounds two days later at the U.S. military hospital at Landstuhl. Andrew was 30. His parents, Michael and Jere Weathers, are coming from Pollock, Louisiana.

Through the trees a distance away, a separate funeral service is about to begin. Six dappled gray horses stand in harness, linked to a caisson bearing a gleaming casket. A soldier passes among the horses with a bucket of feed, and they all wait patiently in light rain.

Yet even here in this serene place, the clangor of Washington, D.C., intrudes faintly from a mile or so across the Potomac. Half a world further away, American jets and drones are killing Islamic State "units," as Central Command primly puts it, and there are rising demands that more be done.

Just this morning, as I walked down the cemetery's Eisenhower Drive toward section 60, where many of the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead are buried, my cellphone pinged with a message from the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "Everyone wants the president's strategy to succeed, but right now we are not reversing ISIL's momentum. That has to change," it read. "It's why the Speaker and many others continue to call on the president to outline and implement a broader strategy for winning this fight...."

Mr. Boehner has shied away from saying plainly that the ISIS threat requires that American ground troops be sent into the fight. But others aren't so reticent. Boehner's lieutenant, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), declared on Face the Nation recently that "If we engage in a conflict that we know this is a threat to America, we should make it so one-sided that it gets over very quickly... special forces and others are probably going to have to be on the ground."

Easy talk about "boots on the ground" grates on the senses. It seems an awfully cavalier way to talk about the American battle dead buried at Arlington and in cemeteries across the country. Of those I have known, in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other conflicts, each one was proud of being "boots on the ground," serving his or her country, proud of what they were accomplishing. Weary, perhaps, but resolute in their determination to see the job done. None, needless to say, wanted to die this way. But they were willing, trusting that the decision to send them was a thoughtful, considered judgment necessary for the good of the country.

Bill Cahir was 40 when Taliban bullets ended his life. He was on his third combat deployment as a Marine civil affairs sergeant. HIs wife, Rene Browne, was pregnant with twin girls.

Bill did not come from a family of military tradition. He had a full life, a job, a career and a woman he loved. But something else called him, and when the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, he felt that call even more urgently. When he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and went off to boot camp, he was 34 years old.

He and I had been friends and workout partners for years. On long runs past Washington's marble monuments and across its river bridges, we'd talk about service and citizenship and war. He believed strongly in his responsibility to participate directly and personally in the defense of his country.

He loved being a Marine, exalted in the hard training, felt fulfilled in the wartime missions. He was honored, he often said, to be part of what he considered a grand undertaking for a noble cause. But as his combat time accumulated, the public disenchantment with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to weigh on him. Like others who are sent into war, Bill was willing to risk his life. But he wished that political leaders and the public were in solid support, had thought beyond their initial enthusiasm for war to the long, difficult years that lay ahead. He hoped for an equal commitment from them.

Today, the relentless advances of the Islamic State militias in Iraq and Syria seem to have stirred us into a frenzy of impatient demands. We want a comprehensive strategy, now. We want air strikes to stop ISIS, now; to save the Kurds, now. To use the military to somehow fix the whole mess, quickly.

It is possible, here in the stillness, to put the war talk on temporary hold. To consider that we have young Americans willing, as a paratrooper recently told me, to "do whatever the country asks." To reflect on ends and means, and costs.

We have a chance, this time, to get it right.