Death in Afghanistan and an apology at home

Memorial Day is still several months away, but it would be nice to think that all Americans still hold some place in their hearts for those who have gave what Abraham Lincoln called the "last full measure of devotion" for their country. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the casualties of battle not some historic recollection of Gettysburg but a real and ongoing reminder of the cost of freedom and the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women now serving in theU.S. armed forces.

Surely, we hold those lives no less precious today than in the time of the Civil War. Ensuring that Americans such as Maj. Robert Marchanti, 48, a Baltimore County public school teacher who was killed last week inside a secure Afghan ministry building, do not die in vain is surely as noble a pursuit today as it was in November of 1863.

The riot took place because Afghans were outraged at the burning of Qurans byU.S. militarypersonnel. Most Americans were probably outraged to hear of it, too, if only because of the sheer stupidity involved. Anti-U.S. feelings in the Islamic world are too prevalent already to think that the incident would not cause an intense emotional reaction. Already, protests have caused the deaths of 30 people, two of them U.S. soldiers, including Major Marchanti, who taught physical education and served in the Maryland Army National Guard.

So President Barack Obama's letter of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not only justified but compelled under the circumstances. Does the U.S. countenance the burning of a Quran, an act strictly forbidden under Islamic law, in an Islamic country? Only those who wish to turn U.S. involvement in the country into an unwinnable holy war could possibly advocate such an insanity.

If President Obama had not issued his calculated apology, most rational Americans, and especially military families who have such a personal stake in the matter, would be justifiably outraged by his indifference to the grave risks involved. It could easily be interpreted as a signal that the White House saw involvement in Afghanistan not as nation building or guarding against anal-Qaida resurgence in the still-struggling country but in defeating Islam itself.

Yet Mr. Obama has come under withering criticism from the right, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who chose not to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. Mr. Gingrich has called the apology "astonishing" and undeserved.

Admittedly, Mr. Gingrich's presidential aspirations are practically on life-support these days, so saying something so outrageous and jingoistic is hardly beyond the pale for him. He obviously believes that anti-Islamic sentiments run deep enough among certain Republican voters that lashing out against an apology might be seen as strongly pro-America.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. What exactly is the downside to regretting a mistake, particularly one for which there is no reasonable explanation? It does not make us weaker, but might cause us to seem more human in the eyes of those hurt by our actions. It's not "appeasing radical Islamists" to try to keep more Afghans from becoming radicalized.

It's a strategy that's already proving effective: Afghan leaders have called for calm, and protests are becoming less frequent and less violent since their peak last week.

But don't look for the right-wing diatribes to end. Rick Santorum has also suggested the apology was wrong (albeit in milder terms than Mr. Gingrich) because the burning was not intentional. Alas, it's always easier to drum up anger against those who hate us then to invite a more thoughtful, appropriate and less emotional course of action — even when it serves America's interest.

Apologize toAfghanistan'sleader? That's not an easy swallow. Our cultures and values are so different. And anger over9/11alone makes it difficult. But reducing tensions in Kabul is only helpful to our military and the difficult role they face in a country that has suffered far more than most Americans could even begin to imagine.

If words can help heal that rift, then let them. Better to bring peace with a paper and pen then with American lives. Those who served, or who have lost friends or relatives in armed conflicts, know this all too well. The rest of us ought to have the good sense to respect that lesson and move on.

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