Comparing American outrage over the Saudi Arabian government's murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to our nation's relative indifference toward the last three years of death and destruction wreaked upon Yemen's civilian population by that same government has prompted frequent reference to the old saw that while the death of an individual is seen as a tragedy, the death of a million is but a statistic. Fortunately, however, in this instance the tragedy does seem to have drawn some attention to the statistic of the tens of thousands dead and millions displaced in the Yemen War. Even as the U.S. provides weapons, fuel and tactical support for the Saudi military intervention responsible for most of the war's devastation, the Trump administration has now called for a ceasefire -- clearly due to the severe embarrassment caused by a favorite ally's blatant involvement in the Khashoggi assassination and cover-up. Could we dare hope, then, that another individual tragedy -- Major Brent Taylor's recent death in Afghanistan -- might also prompt an awakening, in this case to the statistics of our seventeen-year war that claimed him as a casualty?
The 39-year-old Taylor, on leave from his job as mayor of North Ogden, Utah, was on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan (following two in Iraq) when he was killed in an apparent "insider attack" by one of the Afghani soldiers he was sent to train. If Hollywood wanted to create a story glorifying a certain view of what patriotism and service is, or should be all about, it would have been almost impossible to outdo the real-life story: Taylor, one of six brothers who enlisted in the military post-9/11, leaves behind a widow and seven children, as well as a devoted following that lined the streets of his town in tribute on the day he left for his fourth and final deployment.
Of course, the immediate reaction to his death is not very likely to be overtly antiwar. Pro-war sentiment always feeds on the idea that any opposing or questioning views on the subject somehow belittle the sacrifice of those who have died, and so the only appropriate response is to continue sending troops to replace the ones who have fallen. At the return of his remains to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, his widow understandably expressed the belief that "Brent may have died on Afghan soil, but he died for the success of freedom and democracy in both of our countries." Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who knew him personally, called him "the personification of love of God, family and country."
But after a few dark nights have passed, might some of the 19,000 inhabitants of his Salt Lake City suburb, perhaps now touched personally by this war as never before, start to pose uncomfortable questions for themselves? How exactly do you create democracy in a foreign country with B-52s? And what is it that would make us think that tomorrow or next year we're going to achieve what we couldn't accomplish over the past seventeen years?
Three days after Taylor's death, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appeared in the Afghani capital of Kabul and announced that the Taliban enemy needed to understand that it is "pointless and counterproductive to continue the fighting." The problem was that instead of facing television cameras, he should have delivered his message to a mirror. With the Kabul government created by the U.S. and its allies now controlling less of the country than at any time since the 2001 invasion, Stoltenberg and, more importantly, we Americans need to read out loud the handwriting that has been on the wall for a least a decade: Dreadful as the Taliban are, and much as we would not wish it upon anyone to live under their rule, our continued invasion and occupation serve only to solidify their claim to be the true defenders of Afghanistan.
If his tragic death should prompt his admirers in the city of North Ogden, the state of Utah, and beyond to begin questioning just why our leaders lack the vision or courage to acknowledge the futility and waste of human life they perpetuate with this war, then the death of Brent Taylor, like that of Jamal Khashoggi, will not have been in vain.