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Requiem for our dead

The Taliban succeeded in downing an American helicopter a few days ago, killing 30 American soldiers and seven Afghans. It is the costliest single engagement of our war in Afghanistan. Their deaths will likely occasion renewed questioning of the mission in Afghanistan; this is both right and proper. For the best way to honor the sacrifice our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines make for us is to be extraordinarily stingy with their lives and to make the purposes for which they died worth the cost to our country.

Generally, when our military talks about the war dead, they do not use the terminology of lives lost. That gives too little honor to the dead. Our military describes their dead as having sacrificed their lives. It is a poignant distinction, emphasizing that the men and women in our military volunteer for service. They are not required to put their lives at risk. They choose to risk their lives for us.

We have a tendency now, when less than 1 percent of Americans are in military service, to treat them either as pitiable victims or as our society's avengers. The victim caricature comes through media focus on casualties rather than stories of the vast majority of veterans who are proud of their service and living normal lives. It comes through in shameful condescension like Senator Kerry suggesting our warriors are in the military because being poorly educated, they have no alternative.

The other extreme is the lionization of service members as comic book heroes rather than men and women we all know and can relate to. By casting them as impossibly strong and virtuous it makes them different from us. It excuses the rest of us from making our contributions.

The men and women of America's military are heroes, but mostly not in the leaps-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound variety; instead they demonstrate the everyday heroism of doing what needs doing.

Our military go out on missions day after deadly day in Afghanistan. The fight in Helmand and now in the east of Afghanistan is especially fierce. Violence has increased, as should be expected when the enemy is determined, as they are, and we are pressing into their territorial strongholds, as we are.

The most appropriate way for us to honor their sacrifice is to appreciate that they risked their lives purposefully and to make those purposes worth all they paid for us. Lives risked and sacrificed are only part of the right way to judge war aims. We must consider not just costs, but also what the cost achieves. Capturing Iwo Jima cost our country more than 26,000 American casualties, 6,800 dead in the course of the battle. As tragic as those numbers are -- and the individual griefs they represent -- it was necessary to winning the war in the Pacific.

There will be a temptation as we discuss the war in Afghanistan to weigh only the costs, and not the purposes. This is both bad analysis and bad memorializing. The 30 American servicemen killed in the recent helicopter crash -- like the other 90,000 Americans and 43,000 allies fighting in Afghanistan -- were doing very dangerous work for a reason, and that reason was to make our country safe. We owe them not just sorrow but determination. Determination to see the fight through. Determination to make competent the "whole of government operations" on which our strategy depends. Determination to find another way to achieve our aims if the current course won't succeed or a less costly way can be found.

Abraham Lincoln put it best, writing of "the solemn pride that must be yours to have placed so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom." As we mourn our dead, honor them by always making the reasons they risk their lives worth the cost.

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

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