We sit in classrooms listening to another lecture. Or maybe even giving one. We take the kids to school on the way to work. Or climb in the 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 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, bless them.
Maybe once a year, on Veterans Day, we may see the pictures in the paper about graveyard ceremonies, and a president lays a wreath. For most of us, thank God, it's all pretty abstract. Because somebody else is doing the fighting and dying so we can stick to our routines. Peace, freedom security ... it's a great thing when they're routine. And can be taken for granted with pat phrases like "Thank you for your service."
Afghanistan, Iraq, they're far away. There used to be a phrase in the editorial-writing business, 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 anymore. Because these days Afghanistan has become all too close to our lives, all too real. It's no longer some remote abstraction. But most of us still don't spend much time thinking about it -- till we have to. Then on some weekday morning a headline in the Arkansas section catches our eye: "Family suffers death of second brother in Afghanistan violence."
His name was Benjamin Wise, a graduate of West Side Christian School in El Dorado. Age 34, Sgt. First Class Wise died last year 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 left behind a 2-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 men were all killed when a suicide bomber made it into their post at Khost. Jeremy was 35 years old. A graduate of Hendrix College, he had made it through two years of medical school before deciding to join the Navy.
It had taken Benjamin Wise a while to find his calling. After high school, he'd gone off to Bible college in Florida, then to Hendrix, a small liberal-arts school here in Arkansas. For a time a time, and worked at a restaurant in Little Rock before enlisting.
Call it a military family. A third brother, Matthew, called Beau, would join the Marines.
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 else 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 being wracked by fanatical creeds, died December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. 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 from the world. That's a sure way to invite another surprise attack. Which is why, once again, Americans are fighting in places we hardly know, but know are dangerous.
Reading about men like these two brothers, and the kind of families they spring from, I've wondered from time to time, usually while reading accounts of their deeds and dedication, where America keeps 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.