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‘Cost’ of war includes priceless American lives

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Public radio’s broadcast always gets fuzzy as the car nears the Vineyard Street offramp of the H-1, but between crackles and hisses I caught the discussion on "All Things Considered."

The topic was Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency strategy, prompted by the firing of the general in charge of the impossible war who inexplicably talked trash about his civilian bosses to a reporter.

On the air were two military analysts, one of whom is a retired Marine colonel working at a think tank with a name that goes on forever and includes the terms "strategic" and "institute."

Though he is probably very well qualified to comment on the situation, I wish he weren’t because what he had to say was unnerving.

It wasn’t so much his dismal 10-year, $1 trillion-dollar plan for getting out of Afghanistan, which he acknowledged would still leave the country in miserable chaos. Experts and even regular people are aware of the frustrating complexity and the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t consequences involved in the regional war.

What was disturbing was the flat, matter-of-fact tally of the number of American lives his strategy would "cost." About 3,000, he said, describing his calculation as "wildly optimistic."

As an abstract, 3,000 can have little significance. Against real numbers, it becomes meaningful. About 3,000 would be 1,408 fewer soldiers who have died in Iraq since March 2003. About 3,000 would match the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks.

More piercing right now is the number nine, for the nine photos displayed in the newspaper this week. Among them was the smiling face of an Aiea man’s son, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, who was killed in a firefight in a small Afghan village called Wanat in 2008.

People whose jobs are to devise strategies and to think in tanks far away from Wanat and Marjah cannot be faulted for cool assessments. But surely the military authorities who send men and women into battle realize the lives at stake with each of their orders. This should include the three officers who were initially to be punished for command failures in Wanat that resulted in the nine deaths.

Retired Army Col. David Brostrom and the families of his son’s comrades were incensed to learn that the officers, who at first investigation found were derelict in their duties in Wanat, were judged not negligent in a second inquiry.

It would be difficult to imagine that the officers do not feel some despair because of their actions or inaction, but they are equally likely to be relieved they will not be disciplined.

The anguish of a father, brought on by the death of his child and heightened by denial of responsibility by a service of which he was once a member, remains unrelieved.

June is the 104th month of the war in Afghanistan, the longest in American history. June also has been the deadliest for NATO forces there, with 76 killed thus far. These numbers tell a story of quantity, but they are static, just crackles and hisses that disguise the uncountable cost of war.

Cynthia Oi’s "Under the Sun" column will move to Thursdays, starting this week, in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Reach her at


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