Paul Greenberg

We sit in classrooms listening to another boring lecture. Or we take the kids to school on the way to work. Or climb in the pick-up truck for another day at the construction site. We stay busy or, what's much harder, try to look busy. We go on about our business or tend to everybody else's, whatever's our pleasure in a free country.

We seldom look down at the underpinnings on which our lives rest. Or notice who maintains them. We remember the cops and firefighters and EMTs when we need them -- and when we need them, we need them badly -- but otherwise, we've got things to do, or think about doing, or get out of doing.

We sit in comfortable, well-lit offices and add rows of figures, or go to sales meetings. Maybe we worry about the stock market, or just wonder how our team will do next weekend. Some of us make a full-time job of feeling sorry for ourselves, others are too busy helping folks.

Iraq? Afghanistan? They're far away. There used to be a phrase, Afghanistanism, to sum up the kind of opinion piece about some far-away place or abstract idea ("Whither NATO?") that was sure to bore readers. Thumbsuckers, they were called in the trade.

You don't hear references to Afghanistanism any longer. Unfortunately. These days Afghanistan can be all too close to some of our lives. But most of us still don't spend much time thinking about it. Till we have to.

The days of the citizen-army are past. Which is unfortunate, too. Most of us wouldn't know Parade Rest from At Ease, a howitzer from a gun. Then one Wednesday morning a story deep inside the paper hits home: "Family suffers death of second brother in Afghanistan violence." --Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 18, 2012.

His name was Benjamin Wise, and he was from El Dorado, Ark., an old oil town in the southwestern part of the state. Sgt. First Class Wise, age 34, died at a military hospital in Germany of wounds received when his outfit ran into small-arms fire somewhere in Balkh Province. He was a medic himself, and had volunteered for the Special Forces back in 2005.

He'd joined the Army as an infantryman in November of 2000 and had served in Iraq, twice. This was his second deployment to Afghanistan. He leaves behind a two-year-old son, 12-year-old stepson and 10-year-old stepdaughter.

He had come home in 2009 for a funeral -- that of his brother Jeremy, who'd served as part of a Navy SEAL team till he left the service, then signed on as a defense contractor. He, another security contractor and five CIA types were all killed when a suicide bomber made it into their post at Khost. He was 35, and had made it through two years of medical school before deciding to join the Navy.

Call it a military family.

A third brother, Matthew, called Beau, is 28 and in the Marines. He returned last November from his second deployment in Afghanistan.

Benjamin Wise's sister recalled that while Jeremy would just "explode into a room," Ben was "the kind of guy who was in the periphery. He'd throw in his two cents in a more quiet way, and people would just be in stitches." Just like a younger brother.

A staff sergeant who served with him in Afghanistan says Ben Wise appointed himself sergeant in charge of "morale." Which meant he cheered everybody up. "If he saw someone who was having a bad day," the staff sergeant recalled, "he would offer them a hug. He was always there to lift someone's spirits...."

Every outfit has one, or ought to.

Benjamin Wise was where he wanted to be. He'd been assigned to a desk job for a while, but wasn't happy about it, according to his sister. "He wanted to be back in combat."

The Wise family, like the country, is in it for the duration. Just as what's now called the Greatest Generation was. The idea of Fortress America, an America safe in its isolation, shielded by its distance from a turbulent world wracked by fanatical creeds, died December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. Or should have.

Back then the threat was fascism and we were engaged in a world war. Then came the long twilight struggle that was the hot and cold war with communism.

Now it's a different kind of war and a different kind of enemy, but, as we were told from Day One, which was September 11, 2001, this struggle is going to be as long. We can't wish it away, or just withdraw and wait to be struck at home still again. Once more, Americans are fighting in places we hardly know, but know are dangerous.

Whenever I read about men like these two brothers, and their deeds and dedication, I wonder:

Where does America keep getting such men? Generation after generation.

The answer should be clear by now. They come from places like El Dorado, Ark., and families like the Wises.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.