On a recent visit to Capitol Hill I found myself outside of Senator Frank Lautenberg’s (D-NJ) office. Senator Lautenberg is one of only a handful of Senators left who served in the U.S. military during World War II. Outside of Senator Lautenberg’s office is a sign that reads: “As a World War II veteran, Senator Lautenberg wants to make sure we honor the sacrifice of America’s service men and women and created Faces of the Fallen for that purpose.”  Around this sign are placards with small pictures of every U.S. soldier who has died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, their name, rank, hometown and where and how they died. It is a powerfully moving experience for one to begin with Evander Andrews, the first soldier to die in the war eleven years ago Wednesday, and walk the length of the exhibit examining each of the faces of these fallen service men and women.

While the exhibit at Lautenberg’s office ends partway through 2011, unfortunately the war did not. This week marked the beginning of the 12th year of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. Sources differ on the number of U.S. troops who have died since then, but most agree that sometime this Fall the 2,000th American soldier died in Afghanistan. The New York Times gave that sad distinction to Specialist James A. Justice who died in a hospital in Germany on August 21st. This week also marks the 10th anniversary of Congress’ vote to approve the War in Iraq – a war that, although its combat has now largely ended, claimed 4,486 American lives in its eight years.

Perhaps the saddest part of Sen. Lautenberg’s memorial is the number of deaths (particularly recently) that are reported as ‘non-hostile, non-combat related.’ These are largely either accidents or suicides, though the two are notoriously difficult to distinguish. A report in June noted that 154 soldiers in Afghanistan had committed suicide since January 1st (155 days prior) – an average of one suicide per day for the first half of the year. The report goes on to cite the sizable periods in this war where suicide outpaced combat as the leading cause of death among soldiers.

Sen. Lautenberg’s Faces of the Fallen does not mention Iraqi or Afghani deaths, but estimates put that number somewhere over 100,000 (many estimate quite a bit more). This number includes combatants and civilians, women and children. It cannot begin to tell the story of the total destruction and disruption suffered by communities in these countries.

In spite of all this, many have noted how both Governor Romney and President Obama have ignored Afghanistan in their campaigns. Perhaps this will change next week during the foreign policy debate, but as of now their exact thoughts on how to dial down and withdraw our presence from that nation remain unclear.

I could end this blogpost with any number of quotes from Jewish tradition about the need to end war, stop violence and build peace. From Lo Yisa Goy to Ecclesiastes, Oseh Shalom to Shalom Rav, Judaism has a lot that could inspire us to end this war. But what came into my head as I walked through the Faces of the Fallen was a simple question, asked by a more modern Jewish thinker: “How many deaths will take ‘til we know that too many people have died?”

How many more than 2,000?


Image courtesy of Asmaa Waguih/Reuters