Slinking Away from Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

I retired from the U.S. military in 2005. I had no direct role in America’s Afghan war, which means I have no personal stake in trying to justify it or defend it. I never understood how invading and occupying portions of Afghanistan made any sense.

In re-reading a few of my articles against the Afghan war, I came across this email from a dear friend who put it better than I ever could:

I feel sometimes like our military leaders don’t really think of the human cost [of war], even today. I went to church today and I wiped away many tears as they told the story of a member’s son whose legs were recently blown off in Afghanistan, and of a chaplain in Iraq who was there with dying soldiers. These stories, and working and living with military families for all these years has really humanized war and made it so personal to me — but I don’t think most Americans have this personal connection.

Personal email to author, 2012.

For me, my friend’s words sum up the great tragedy of this war. So many lives lost or damaged, most of them not American, and for what? What were America’s leaders thinking? What were they feeling, or failing to feel?

Obviously, the Afghan war was never America’s to win. Young troops were sent there on a fool’s errand. They may have tried hard — real hard — but they failed. Yet that failure wasn’t their fault. That failure was Bush’s and Obama’s and Trump’s. That failure was shared by a Congress that refused to exercise true oversight. That failure was aggravated by all those who profited from a doomed effort. Small wonder that Americans put so little faith and trust in their government today. We’ve been lied to so often by callous politicians with no skin in the game.

As the Taliban consolidates its control over much of Afghanistan, the entire U.S. and Coalition war effort stands in high relief as a debacle and disaster. Just as South Vietnam’s quick fall in 1975 revealed the dishonesty of U.S. government officials (along with the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and so many other events), the ongoing collapse of America’s position in Afghanistan highlights a system that lacks integrity and honesty.

We lose because we’re craven and dishonest. We lose because we forget the personal costs of war. We lose because we fail to pay attention. We lose because we’re greedy and stupid.

Yes, I’m angry. I’ve written far too many articles against America’s Afghan war. Of course, they changed nothing. Even now, as the evidence is all around us of how much we’ve been lied to about “progress” in Afghanistan, there are still officials who argue we should stay and fight. For what reasons? To what end?

As journalist Megan Stack put it in a recent article in The New Yorker,

As the United States rushes to remove its troops from Afghanistan this summer, the Pentagon has imposed a de-facto press blackout on their departure. The military has ignored requests for embeds, denied pleas for even perfunctory interviews with troops, and generally worked to obstruct the public’s view of the United States pulling up stakes … the obfuscation was predictable. Leaving a country that many expect will now collapse into civil war, the United States has no victory to declare; it can only acknowledge the reality of relinquishment and retreat … [T]he outcome in Afghanistan was ignominious. The conflict will cost taxpayers more than two trillion dollars, including veteran care and interest on war borrowing, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which also estimates that more than a hundred and seventy thousand people died in the conflict, counting Afghan forces, Taliban fighters, and contractors. That figure includes twenty-four hundred U.S. troops and forty-seven thousand civilians who died in a project that failed at its most basic goal of defeating the Taliban, who are now surging back to seize control of districts and, according to human-rights groups, carrying out organized revenge killings.

Will anyone in the U.S. government be held accountable for this “ignominious” debacle? This disaster?

Isn’t it sad that we already know that “Not only no, but hell no!” is the answer here?

Update: For what it’s worth, this was my original opening to this article: As the Taliban quickly expands its control over Afghanistan, the dishonesty of the U.S. military and government is revealed. More than a trillion dollars spent over two decades, all those reports of progress in creating Afghan security forces and a centralized government, all the lives lost, and for what?

Telling War Stories

There I wasn’t: The Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, August 2009 (Wikipedia)

W.J. Astore

Combat myths matter to more than just military members. So do their ramifications.

I don’t have any personal war stories to tell.  In my twenty years in the U.S. Air Force, I never saw combat.  I started as a developmental engineer, working mainly on computer software, and morphed into a historian of science and technology who taught for six years at the USAF Academy.  I worked on software projects that helped pilots plan their missions and helped the world to keep track of objects in Earth orbit.  I taught military cadets who did see combat and served as the dean of students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, where I saw plenty of young troops cross the graduation stage with language skills in Arabic and Pashto and other languages as they prepared to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  But no combat for me.

I got lucky.  As one friend, an Army colonel, told me: any day you’re not being shot at is a good day in the Army.  The result, however, is that I can’t tell exciting war stories that begin: “There I was” in Baghdad, or Kandahar, or Fallujah, or the Korengal Valley.

But I was involved in computer simulations (“war games”) at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado near the end of the Cold War.  The one I remember most vividly ended with a Soviet nuclear missile strike on the United States.  As I watched the (simulated) missile tracks emerge from Soviet territory, cross the Arctic circle, and terminate in American cities, I had a momentary glimpse of nuclear terror.  What if I ‘d just witnessed the death of millions of Americans on a monochrome computer screen?  That’s a “war story” that’s stayed with me, and so I’m a firm supporter of eliminating all nuclear weapons everywhere.

That’s my “there I sorta was” story.  Yet, whether you’ve served in the military or not, all Americans tell themselves war stories, or rather stories about America’s wars.  The basic story most tell themselves goes something like this:

America is a good and decent country, our troops are heroes, that we wage wars reluctantly and for noble causes, and that our wars are almost exclusively defensive or preventive.  We tell ourselves we don’t want to be bombing and killing in Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere, but we have to be.  Bad people are doing bad things, and we need to fight them over there else we’ll have to fight them right here.

Yet what if the stories we tell ourselves are all wrong?  What if we are the bad people, or at least the ones doing much of the bad things?  And, even if those stories aren’t always wrong and we aren’t always bad, what are the costs of permanent war – all those “bad things” associated with war – to our democracy, what’s left of it, that is? 

A book I return to is Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War, by Megan Stack.  Stack was a war correspondent who witnessed the effects of war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  She focuses not on strategy or tactics or weaponry or combat but on the impact of war on people.  And in her chapter on “Terrorism and Other Stories,” she reaches this powerful conclusion:

It matters, what you do at war.  It matters more than you ever want to know.  Because countries, like people, have collective consciences and memories and souls, and the violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who we are.  The soldiers who don’t die for us come home again.  They bring with them the killers they became on our national behalf… 

We may wish it were not so, but action amounts to identity.  We become what we do.  You can tell yourself all the stories you want, but you can’t leave your actions over there … All of that poison seeps back into our soil.

Nothing has changed since Stack’s book was published a decade ago.  U.S. forces remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, still fighting that word, terrorism, even as there’s renewed talk within the Pentagon of a new cold war against Russia and China.  A reboot of that Cold War I thought I’d witnessed the end of thirty years ago.  (I even got a certificate signed by President George H.W. Bush thanking me for helping to win that war.) Could it be that real enemy doesn’t reside in Moscow or Beijing, but in us?  As Stack continued:

And it makes us lie to ourselves, precisely because we want to believe that we are good … we Americans tell ourselves that we are fighting tyranny and toppling dictators.  And we say this word, terrorism, because it has become the best excuse of all.  We push into other lands, we chase the ghosts of a concept, because it is too hard to admit that evil is already in our own hearts and blood is on our hands.

As Americans we need to stop telling ourselves self-serving war stories and start telling much tougher ones about working for peace.  We need to stop telling (and selling) stories about a new cold war and stop “investing” a trillion dollars in new nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines.  I’ve seen those simulated nuclear missile tracks crossing the pole and ending in American cities; that was scary enough. The real thing would be unimaginably terrifying and would likely end life on our planet.

What mad story can we possibly tell ourselves to justify the continued building of more ecocidal and genocidal weapons?

We humans are great storytellers but we’re not smart ones.  Perhaps it’s the power of our stories that has led us to be the dominant and most destructive species on this planet.  The problem is that we still tell far too many war stories and value them far too highly.  Peace, meanwhile, if mentioned at all, is dismissed as fantasy, a tale to be told to children alongside stories of unicorns and fairies—which, to the first generation of voting age adults never to have known it, it sort of is.

Unless we smarten up and grow as a species, our collective war stories will likely be the death of us.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.