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Our Views: Wars high costs often are hidden
Psychological, physical wounds take a toll on service members at war for many years
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

The high cost of war again has been brought into clear focus.

A U.S. soldier is accused of going on a violent rampage March 11 in villages near his base in southern Afghanistan, gunning down 16 Afghan civilians; nine of the victims were children.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, a married father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., is an 11-year Army veteran on his fourth tour of duty after three deployments to Iraq. He previously suffered a serious head injury but had been cleared for duty afterward. Reports say he had watched a fellow soldier seriously wounded the day before the massacre.

No one can explain why this soldier went on such a horrible binge. But at first glance, it doesn't seem surprising that someone whose nerves may be frayed to the limit on a fourth tour of duty might crack under such a strain.

Military officials blame a combination of stress, alcohol and family problems. "He just snapped," one official said.

The shooting outraged Afghans already upset by a Quran-burning incident involving U.S. soldiers, straining relations with that nation's fledgling government and making the mission even more difficult.

Following the incident, Afghanistan's president insisted U.S. forces withdraw sooner than planned, and negotiations with the Taliban were broken off.

Thousands of U.S. troops have served bravely in a attempt to bring stability to that war-torn nation. Yet it only takes a few violent, irresponsible actions to paint them all in a negative light.

The war in Afghanistan has lasted for more than a decade; the Iraq campaign went on for nearly nine years. In all, some 7,700 American lives have been lost in those efforts. In contrast, the nation's bloodiest wars, the Civil War and World War II, lasted but four years each.

Each war produces its own unique horrors. Soldiers a generation ago faced foes across defined lines of combat as they bombarded each other with artillery. It's a different kind of fight in Afghanistan, where combat troops can be maimed by unseen roadside bombs. That lesson hit home Feb. 10 when Marine Pft. Sean Adams of Hall County was seriously wounded in such an attack.

American troops don't know what dangers lie around each corner from shadowy enemies who don't carry flags or wear uniforms but are just as deadly and determined. As a result, we don't know how many may return from combat bringing unseen scars. The horrors of war they experienced can't easily be set aside when their hitch is done. The effects of battles in Iraq and Afghanistan may be felt for years to come.

Likewise, the Middle East engagements don't end with surrenders or peace treaties, soldiers laying down their weapons to mark the end of combat. They drag on for years, meaning many troops must serve multiple tours and face these dangers over and over.

This leads to the question many are asking: Is it time for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan?

President Barack Obama has announced a 2014 withdrawal date for U.S. troops. While many oppose the idea of such a hard deadline, even the staunchest war supporters in Congress and in the Republican presidential field now question whether a continued military presence is in the nation's long-term interests.

In fact, many of the war's key goals have been met. In the weeks after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the chief mission was to remove the Taliban from power and disable al-Qaida's organization. Today, Osama bin Laden and many of al-Qaida's top leaders have been captured or killed, the Taliban remains dangerous but out of power, and the push for democratic reforms has echoed throughout the Middle East.

Now the U.S. is facing another potential conflict with Iran. But can we commit our armed forces to a third campaign in such a short period of time? Or does our military need time to retool and rejuvenate for future conflicts?

The U.S. has the greatest military the world has ever known, and has proven that time and again over the last century. To maintain that excellence, and honor the service of its members, they should only be asked to fight battles that can be won, with a clear mission in mind.

Friends of Adams, a Chestatee High School graduate, speak of his longtime desire to become a Marine and make the world safer for his loved ones. His courage and sacrifice earned him a Purple Heart, but a long road to recovery from his injuries. His ordeal shows a different side of the hell of war, but whether the wounds are physical or psychological, they are hell regardless.

Thus, we owe it to Adams and others to make sure their sacrifice is worth the cost.