Dana Milbank: A general's farewell

August 18, 2014 10:11:43 AM

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WASHINGTON -- I've observed many funerals over the last decade in Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60, where war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. 

 

A week ago, I went for what, God willing, was the last. 

 

It was the burial of Harold Greene, shot to death in Afghanistan Aug. 5, the first U.S. general to be killed in a combat zone since the Vietnam War. Because of his high rank, there was great pageantry: the riderless horse with boots backward in the stirrups; the Army chief of staff presenting the flags; the pounding, 13-cannon salute. 

 

The fanfare was a fitting coda to a dozen years of war. President George W. Bush often said there would be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. Now the wars are over, for better or for worse -- and the general's burial was about as much ceremony as we're going to get. 

 

The Iraq War is history, at least for U.S. ground troops, and soon Afghanistan will be, too. Greene's death captures well the ambiguous end: He was the No. 2 general in charge of training Afghan forces to take over after the American departure, and he was killed -- randomly, it seems -- by one of the Afghans who was supposed to be on our side. It was a senseless closing act of an American pullout ordered somewhere between victory and defeat. 

 

In 2005, when I began visiting Section 60, the burials were constant. The remains of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan came to dominate some two dozen rows in the 18-acre plot, 876 fallen warriors in all. 

 

But recently, Section 60 has begun to tell a different story -- of the end of wars. Other than Greene, there have been only two active-duty burials since May, Arlington officials report. Most of the recent headstones near Greene's resting place are of veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam who died long after they served. In other words, Section 60 is gradually returning to what it was before the remains of young men and women began a decade ago to fill its rows with heartbreaking rapidity: An ordinary graveyard. 

 

It will never be ordinary, of course, for those of us who lived during this time. As of Thursday morning, 6,831 American military personnel had been killed in what used to be called the "war on terror": 4,425 in Iraq, 2,203 in Afghanistan and 203 elsewhere. Over 50,000 have been wounded in action. 

 

And what do we have to show for it? Much of Iraq (and neighboring Syria) has fallen under the control of barbaric religious extremists, and hopes for a stable Iraq rest largely on the goodwill of Iran. Afghanistan -- home of the "good war" -- looks all too likely to fall apart after American forces leave. 

 

But disillusionment with the conflicts shouldn't affect the gratitude we feel toward those who lie in Section 60. Indeed, it would do all Americans some good to forget the political second-guessing and to recall what these men and women did for us. 

 

None of them got quite the send-off that Greene did. Among the 135 military personnel participating, there were about 25 in the band and 50 carrying flags or rifles. Seven white horses led the wooden caisson and 300 mourners followed it. The band played "America the Beautiful." 

 

The 55-year-old major general's rank justified pageantry, but his death was no more important than the others buried in Section 60. The press viewing area was on top of the grave of Staff Sgt. David Senft, 27, who died in Kandahar in an apparent suicide in 2010. Along with the graves of older veterans buried near Greene were the resting places of Cpl. Michael Jankiewicz, 23, killed in 2010 when his Osprey crashed in Afghanistan, Spc. Gary L. Mathew Gooch, 22, killed in 2009 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and the shared grave of Thomas Gramith and Mark McDowell, killed in 2009 when their F-15 crashed in Afghanistan. 

 

Before Greene's service, a young woman in shorts and tank top sat at the Section 60 grave of her friend, Lt. Matthew Parker Klopfer, a young naval aviator who died in a fall on a training base. The woman, who placed lilies at Klopfer's grave, was still there when Greene's service ended. 

 

Watching the general's burial, she said, "brought me back" to her friend's service in 2012. The lieutenant's sendoff didn't have so much pomp, of course, but that didn't matter. "I miss him a lot," she said.