America is entering its 10th year of war, but outside certain neighborhoods and communities, it is hard to tell. Afghanistan and Iraq are worlds away, the missions there cloudy and complicated, and the absence of military conscription means the sacrifice is inequitably distributed. We all are paying the mammoth costs of these conflicts: A September 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service put the total federal price tag since 9/11 at $1.12 trillion. But the human toll escapes most attention.
And yet the casualties are real: 5,775 dead so far, men and women who volunteered to serve in wars that have largely been financed by federal debt and largely fought beyond the nation’s consciousness. In the Jewish community, there is often more focus on those Americans who enlist in the Israel Defense Forces than those who have chosen to fight under the stars and stripes. It’s an unspoken, uncomfortable truth: the IDF is the Jewish military. About 650 of the “lone soldiers” currently serving in the IDF are dual American-Israeli citizens, and there are untold numbers of foreign volunteers.
By contrast, of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, only 1,500 are Jewish, 1% of the total currently deployed there.
How can we forget those American Jews who have fought in these wars, and the 37 who have died? How can we ignore or minimize their sacrifice? Part of the answer lies in the complex attitude toward these wars, burdened as they are with faulty missions and uncertain outcomes. What are we hoping to accomplish in Afghanistan? Why did we invade Iraq in the first place? The imperative to defend Israel is clear and — in the minds of some, holy — while our wars just seem intractable.
Listen to the family members of the fallen, and those explanations become empty excuses. “I think people are surprised to learn that Jews serve in the military in America because people think that any Jew interested in serving in the military is going to serve in the IDF,” says Beverly Wolfer-Nerenberg, whose brother, Stuart, was killed in Baghdad. “I think that people overlook the fact that Jews living in this country are patriotic and do have a sense of duty and gratitude and are grateful for what this country has given to us over the years.”
The truth is, we overlook that fact in ourselves. In some of the painful interviews collected for this week’s “Profiles of Our Fallen” feature, we heard from parents initially worried and embarrassed about their childrens’ choice. Melinda Kane, whose son, Jeremy, died in Afghanistan, described “the stigma that a nice Jewish boy from Cherry Hill would want to go into the military. It was really unheard of and sadly I was afraid that people would judge my son for being a certain way that was not who he was.”
Instead, when she asked Jeremy why he chose to enlist here, he responded: “It doesn’t matter whether I fight for the Israelis or the Americans. We’re all battling the same thing.”
However we, as Americans, proceed in our efforts to restore stability and some form of self-governance to Iraq and Afghanistan, we owe it those on the front lines to respect and honor their choices. And as we express concern for the IDF in our synagogues and communities, we cannot forget the many Jews who serve with the U.S. military, just as bravely and with just as much at stake.