The car was hotter than a Louisiana summer afternoon and it was filled with a dusty air that appeared to choke me with every breath I took. From the driver’s seat, my grandfather fiddled with the radio until he finally got it set on his desired station. Seconds later Bill O’Reilly’s sardonic and gruff voice burst through the speakers. O’Reilly raged about how some guy named Barack Obama – if elected President, would pull out of Afghanistan, make America weaker, hold a state dinner for the Taliban, and possiblg pardon Osama Bin Laden. A veteran spoke next. Fresh from the deserts of Afghanistan, the veteran reminisced about his fallen comrades and the pernicious toll war had taken on him.
Coming to a stoplight, my grandfather turned down the radio and said to me, “War is a damn awful thing and I hope this one is finished before you’re old enough to fight.”
At the time, I figured he had been caught up in the hysteria emanating from a certain studio in Midtown Manhattan. I was eight, surely the war would be over long before I was old enough to enlist. Not to mention, O’Reilly promised that if John McCain won, we would send some more troops in and wrap things up before the distant year of 2012. After all, America definitely would not elect a President who would concede to the Taliban.
Looking back now, my grandfather’s words crash upon me like a tree uprooted from its base by hurricanic gales. Barack Obama was twice elected, killed Bin Laden, sent troops into Afghanistan and the war dragged on. Meanwhile, I went to middle school, then high school, and nearly made it through college. I had my first girlfriend, my first beer, my first (and last) Mardi Gras hangover. Simultaneously, in other corners of America, thirteen kids my age experienced similar rites of passage; graduations, marriages, new births—life in all its bits and bobs.
All of us watched as eight years of aloof leadership by President Obama became four years of hyperbolic paranoia under President Donald Trump. We participated in the rise of social media, watched as John McCain was laid to rest, and grew uneasy as China’s malignity grew. We #MaskedUp as Covid-19 ravaged an already exhausted America, and voted on November 3rd when Joseph R. Biden was somehow elected President of the United States.
Despite these shared experiences, there is one key difference between me and those thirteen kids. What separates us is not just distance, but instead a divergent choice. When I turned 18, I decided to go to college. They chose to enlist, to sacrifice the joys of youth for the glory of service. They chose to defend America—whatever the cost.
War is a damn awful thing; men and women much wiser than I have spilled plenty of ink relaying that message. In war, there are no real moral victors and human tragedy is of monumental proportion. Lives of foe and friend are lost, resources are wasted, and very rarely do things improve even after the shots cease to be fired.
America’s war in Afghanistan lasted nearly twenty years. Trillions of dollars were spent on weapons and arms, countless more were spent persuading the American public that a continued presence in the “graveyard of empires” was in our national interest. Thousands of American men and women were killed in those coarse middle-Asian sands, and even more were wounded, returning home irreparably damaged both mentally physically.
For twenty years, America’s finest bravely fought a war for which there was no real objective, no foreseeable end-date, and no goal. Our service members dutifully followed the orders of an incompetent leadership class and sacrificed their lives in the hope that freedom would prevail.
Over the past two weeks, however, it has become clear that freedom will not prevail. First announced back in April, President Biden’s withdrawal of Americans from Afghanistan, intended to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, has been the biggest failure of any administration since Jimmy Carter. As America withdrew its military and support, Taliban forces quickly defeated the Afghan government. Last weekend, Kabul fell, more than ten thousand American’s are still stranded in the country, and a series of ISIS-K attacks this week have resulted in the deaths of at least 14 American service members.
Thirteen of those killed were my age or near it, some younger. They are the thirteen American’s that chose to serve our country, and due to the Commander in Chief’s incompetence, they perished.
My grandfather is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and he’s a veteran of the first Gulf War, operations in the horn of Africa and the Caribbean. A career totaling 28 years, he retired as America’s mission in the second Iraq war began its transition to nation building. Over the next few years, as I grew older, he took it upon himself to impart his wisdom and experience to me. A graduate of the Naval War College, he encouraged me to read up on my ancient history, the history of war, and international affairs. The Colonel made me learned about the horrors of war, the tough choices that had to be made, and the consequences of a wrong decision.
Had I been born with all of my faculties and not impaired with a litany of esophageal issues, I imagine I would have desired to follow in his footsteps. Of course, fate had different plans in store. So it is that I am here at home, surrounded by family and friends. Meanwhile, beyond the seas thirteen of my peers are dead—murdered by the twin forces of incompetence and imperial hubris.
“Never underestimate Joe’s ability to fuck things up,” this quote attributed to former President Barack Obama could easily sum up the past seven months of American life. In his brief tenure as leader of the free world, Biden has made America dependent on foreign oil, increased our national debt ten-fold, and caused a decades-high rise in inflation. These are not merely Republican Party talking points, they are absolute truths. But still, the most damning of all has been his disastrous process of ending the war in Afghanistan.
No amount of spin the White House and corporate-media allies could conjure will change the blunt reality of the President’s failure. Due to actions directly taken or endorsed by the Administration, 14 Americans are dead, more are injured, and the efforts of a twenty-year conflict have come to nothing. In truth, Afghanistan was lost years ago, but Joe Biden’s failure to safely end the war without further loss of American life was not inevitable.
America now faces not merely a crisis of confidence, but a crisis of purpose. Joe Biden could hang a thousand portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, but happy days are not here again.
What now are we supposed to make of the war in Afghanistan? After all the blood, sweat, and tears, what have we as a country gained? In some ways, this question may never be answered. Almost forty years on from Vietnam, Americans still question the purpose of that proxy war. I imagine Afghanistan will come to dominate a similarly pernicious part of the American psyche over the next forty.
If there is no answer to what we have gained, perhaps we can take greater solace in what comes next? Alas, the future does not portend comfort. adversarial specter arises in China and Russia, threatening an even greater confrontation within the next twenty years. Economic stagnation, cultural division, and political instability have come to define America domestically—rejecting the assumption that we are one, indivisible union.
So, where do we begin to make sense of all of this? The answer is that we cannot. The ugly truth is that we failed to recognize the real purpose of our war in Afghanistan. Our leadership class and military-industrial complex did not identify the real threat, because they do not know what constitutes American interest. As a result, the lives we lost were lost in vain. America’s leaders, over the past thirty years, have continuously brought our country to the altar of sacrifice and forced us to submit. As a result, we have lost brothers and sisters, we have lost jobs, we have lost ourselves. Afghanistan, Iraq, 2008, Covid-19—all of it—was nothing more and nothing less than advent of American carnage.
“War is a damn awful thing and I hope this one is finished before you’re old enough to fight.”
Colonel, I’m sad to report that it was not finished. The generation of 9/11 fought in a war with the expectation our generation would not need to. But the war dragged on, and even though I did not fight, my peers did.
Thirteen of them came home today. Draped in old glory, they are headed to Arlington. God bless their souls.