A sombre milestone was recorded last week in the Afghanistan war: the 3000th Coalition death. He was a 26-year-old American sailor, assigned to the US Naval Forces in Bahrain in support of the war.

The death barely registered in Australia, but then here - as in other Coalition nations - the focus is on the scramble for the exit from Afghanistan. France is just the latest nation to announce an earlier-than-planned withdrawal (the end of this year).

The images are confronting. Bodies are truncated; bandaged men are missing limbs, their faces and bodies burned and scarred. 

Politicians and the public are resolute. They want the bloody and costly post-September 11 wars to be gone, erased, left behind - and for these civilians they pretty soon will be. For the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, of course, this isn't possible, and they will forever live with the physical and mental legacies of their military service.

And so as the conflicts which dominated our national discourses for the past decade come to a close, there is a troubling disconnect between those who fought in these wars and those who ordered, supported, benefited from or just stood by as they were waged in their names.

Some population numbers illustrate how wide the gap is between the military and civilian populations.

In the US, for instance, 0.5 per cent of the American population served in the US armed forces over the past decade, according to the Pew Research Centre. In Australia the Australian Defence Force says 9800 personnel served in Iraq, and 17,600 in Afghanistan - meaning just 0.1 per cent of the total population has fought in the two wars.

The gap portrayed in the figures is backed up by attitudinal research: Pew also found 84 per cent of America's post-September 11 veterans say the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families, and the public agrees, though by a smaller majority of 71 per cent.

While the numbers of veterans we are talking about here might be relatively small compared with their wider populations, the burden they will carry as a result of their service on the front line is immense. Ironically, this is a direct result of the fact that more military personnel are surviving their wounds in our modern wars than ever before.

This fact was brought home very plainly with some further, rather shocking, statistics on Monday, when the US commemorated its annual Memorial Day holiday. First, more than 500,000 American armed forces members have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabling injuries (whether physical or psychological). Second, 45 per cent of post-September 11 veterans are now seeking compensation for service-related injuries - compared with 21 per cent of veterans after the 1991 Gulf War.

(In Australia, the ADF says 223 personnel have been wounded in action in Afghanistan.)

This disparity and disconnect between civilians and veterans in terms of their ability to put the post-September 11 wars behind them suggests that before we close the book on the past decade's conflicts, we should all pause and reflect on what that period taught us.

Was it worth the human toll for the US? Was it worth it for us?

These questions sprang to mind this week when I came across the Joe Bonham Project - an incredibly affecting artistic collaboration founded in the US by Michael Fay, a former Marine Corp combat artist who did two tours of Iraq and two of Afghanistan while in uniform.

The project goes a significant way towards bridging that gap between civilians and the military, by documenting through art in a very tangible and moving way the physical and mental impact the two wars have had on serving personnel.

The project, which is touring America now, has involved a group of artists with different connections to the wars (some have had serving family members, others previously deployed as official military artists) spending time with willing wounded veterans in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, talking with them, observing them, and drawing them.

The project is named after the central character in the disturbing 1938 anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun, about a World War I soldier who wakes up in a hospital bed and slowly realises he has lost his limbs and face, but not his mind, and is trapped in his body.

The images are confronting. Bodies are truncated; bandaged men are missing limbs, their faces and bodies burned and scarred. Some are hooked up to tubes and colostomy bags. They speak volumes about events most of us are only too willing to move on from now, and about those who can't.

Fay likes to think of the artists as witnesses, or ''listeners in the woods''. ''We are the ones out there who are going to listen and say 'yes, the goddam tree did make a sound'.''

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