In politics and world events, I’ve been shocked, I’ve been angry, I’ve been ashamed, and I’ve been disappointed. But never in my life, until now, has a geopolitical event caused me to literally endure a cycle of grief. Nothing can quantify my feelings as I’ve watched my country endure such a self-inflicted unmitigated disaster short of an admission that I’m quite literally in mourning for the honor, moral integrity, and national character of my country.
Shock and Denial
Everyone keeps saying this was inevitable, that it was unavoidable, and that there was no other conclusion to our Afghanistan “misadventure” in “nation-building” than what we’ve seen unfold. I suppose I was either too idealistic, too optimistic, or too hopeful that America stood for something, that we had a collective memory of recent history, or that I lived in a society that had at least a modicum of self-respect and a determination to follow through on its commitments.
I’ve spent most of the last year in denial. I didn’t think that the American people would actually stick with the theme of retreatism and defeatism even as the realities of surrender smacked them in the face. I didn’t believe that not one but two Presidents, one from each major party, could really engage in such epic proportions of self-deception, nor that the one whose election so many declared was the “return of competence and decency” could completely ignore the voices that sounded warning to the realities on the ground nor that there could be such entrenchment to a course that courted disaster that not even the worst-case scenario could force a reconsideration. I am especially astounded and dismayed that military and civilian leadership under the President would go along with such an obvious path of disaster without taking a leaf from Jim Mattis’ book.
So, despite every other reason not to be, I really was shocked. I was shocked that so many people, Presidents from both parties, members of Congress across the table, pundits of all ideological stripes, and people from the heights of academia down to the truck drivers with flags painted on their rigs could have so thoroughly forgotten why we went to Afghanistan in the first place. I am floored that American society forgot the very thing they swore to always remember and never forget.
We didn’t go to Afghanistan to nation-build. We didn’t go to Afghanistan because we were bored and thought we’d throw around American military might for a few years. Afghanistan was not a war of choice. The Korean War was a war of choice. The Vietnam War was a war of choice. Granada, Panama, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq...these were “interventions” because no one attacked us. We invaded Afghanistan in retaliation to an attack. We were responding to someone else’s declaration of war.
I know I was only in 8th grade at the time, so forgive me if my young eyes were traumatized more than they should have been, but I distinctly remember the World Trade Center attacks being a pretty big deal. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry on cable news kept telling me, “This is your generation’s Pearl Harbor.” The images of that day galvanized the world to America’s cause, and we embarked on a righteous war supported by our allies.
No one questioned America’s right to demand that the Taliban surrender Osama Bin Laden to us. The free world picked up their guns and came with us when we rightly placed our crosshairs on the Taliban as they refused to hand him over and doubled down on their commitment to the common cause they declared they shared with the perpetrators of the attacks. Across the board, it was manifestly self-evident that the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and anyone else who ascribed to or spread the cancer of violent jihad had to be pursued, pacified, or killed.
The world, led by America in her righteous anger, had awoken to a pernicious and destabilizing ideology festering in its midst and declared in one voice, “Never again!”
But, apparently, never again has an expiration date. Righteous anger has a statute of limitations. Whatever perverse notion of honor and credibility Americans believe in these days allows for decade-to-decade flexibilities. When we say that we don’t negotiate with terrorists, when we say that America is committed to a course of action, and when we say that a certain enemy will be hunted down and committed to the depository of fallen foes that dare challenge American might and dare shed the innocent blood of America’s citizens, I guess that’s all just subject to interpretation, right?
Who cares that the Taliban haven’t changed one whit, that they’re just as committed to violent jihad, that the caliphate they plan to reinstate will look exactly like the one we toppled, that they’re just as interwoven with Al Qaeda and sister jihadi networks as they’ve always been, or that they’ll welcome training camps and offer operational space to those with the express goal of killing Americans. It’s been twenty years, right? End of conversation. Who cares, we’re done, pack it up and go home.
Oh, the 2,443 American soldiers who died denying violent jihadis operational space, who kept the bombs and death over there, who gave their lives in a fight that forced the Taliban and their allies to live in caves looking to the sky in terror of a MOAB crashing in instead of planning the next 9/11? Yeah, those brave souls paid the uttermost farthing for their commitment to honor and freedom, but twenty years is twenty years.
Surely, they understand we’ve crossed a mystic line, that now it’s a “forever war.” Surely, they couldn’t expect us to maintain a light footprint in a low-level conflict with fewer yearly deaths since 2015 than I-5 in Los Angeles. Surely, the permanent severance of their hopes and dreams doesn’t demand we at least hesitate to surrender what they fought to achieve. After all, we’re tired. The optics are bad. The idea of ending the war has played out great in domestic opinion polling.
Pain and Guilt
But who am I to throw my anger around so heavily? I didn’t deploy to the battlefield. I stepped forward, I trained, I volunteered for deployment, but it didn’t happen. I got stood down and in six years of service, I never left the country. I will forever regret that I didn’t find a way to deploy, to add my blood, sweat, and tears to those shed by the many brave patriots who stepped forward when the towers fell.
I didn’t re-up in 2014 when my contract ended because I didn’t think the threat was going away anytime soon. I thought I had time to finish my college degree and get back in the military as an officer. When life threw me curves and kept me from reaching that goal year after year, I didn’t cut my losses and jump back in the fight. I should have.
I’m not going to lie. There were a couple of days last week where I was so filled with shame and guilt as I viewed the integrity of my country falling to ashes that I felt I would rather have died on the battlefield with my brothers and sisters, still believing that America stood for something, than alive watching this shame and defeat play out.
I have a house, an amazing wife, three wonderful children, and I’m able to pursue my education and fall in love with my field of study. My oldest daughter started preschool last week. She got home after the first day, so excited to tell me that the letter of the day was A, and I was trying so hard not to fall apart because all I could think of is what little girls just like her will soon face in Afghanistan for daring to do the same.
In my life, I have tried to stand for something. I have believed in the power of the voice and in the power of an individual to step forward and make a difference. But in this past week, I have felt completely and wholly helpless. I’ve felt like nothing I’ve done or said has made any difference. The winds of tragic events, angry political movements, and iconoclastic, impetuous, and neglectful leadership feel beyond my capacity to shout above.
The evening after the fall of Kabul, I went through the house and took down all of my patriotic displays. I boxed up my military decorations, my red beret, and the jump boots I display above the bookshelves. I took down every instance of the American flag and all references to our national heritage. Not because the events playing out in Afghanistan made me ashamed of these symbols, but because I didn’t feel like we, as a country, deserved to display these symbols anymore.
I felt like a man without a country. America is unique in the history of the world because we were fundamentally founded on certain ideas that transcend what has typically defined a nation. But, today, in our nihilism, our cynicism, and our defeatism, I felt that we’d lost those ideas. And, without those ideas, what is America?
I felt we had betrayed our heritage and, through sheer lack of national character, have diminished the stature of what we have received from previous generations. I didn’t feel worthy of claiming America’s symbols as my own, of displaying them as if they required nothing in return for the honor they bestow.
Never in American history have we retreated or surrendered in the face of a foe who attacked us first. Never have we ceded territory or given up the fight against an enemy that struck us at home. Never, not even in Saigon, have we beaten such a hasty and disorganized retreat that left American citizens and American allies behind enemy lines while demonstrating no will to proceed in a way contrary to how the enemy dictates.
The Upward Turn
Contrary to the conclusion of most cycles of grief, my period of mourning cannot end in acceptance. To accept what America has become, to accept what we have allowed happen, would be to consign myself to perpetual despair.
I don’t believe in a grand arc of history. History is an overlapping map of cycles. These cycles are the collective reality of human nature. There is no undefined, mystical source that assures the perpetual progression of the species from generation to generation. Each generation has a choice, and human weakness is forever present, prepared to engulf nations in blood and despair.
But no matter where we find ourselves in these cycles, each generation maintains the ability to choose to disrupt them, to correct course. Honor and character are far more easily surrendered than they are restored. But they can be restored.
I don’t know what the coming years will bring. The fall of Kabul, in many ways, is the end of multiple eras. It’s the end of committed troop deployments in a War on Terror we believe to be over. It’s the end of clear-eyed and trusted American leadership in the world, at least for the time being. And, it appears likely that America has shrunk from its place as the lone superpower. For, surely, our defeat at the hands of terrorists wielding AK-47s and RPGs as they hid and outlasted us in their caves will inevitably invite challenges to the “peaceful hegemony” of the world order established by American military might from those with far more capable, formidable, and numerous military technologies, tactics, and forces than what the Taliban were ever able to field.
But as I arrive upon the conclusion of my cycle of grief, and despite all evidence to the contrary, I find myself still believing in the American spirit. I find myself believing that one day, events will reach a point where the national character handed down to us finds purchase in our hearts once more. I believe we can still wake up and find that we are strong, that we can find a way to believe in us again.
No, we don’t need to be the world’s police. We cannot extend ourselves to challenge every injustice in the world. We cannot, nor should we, force our views of government or culture on others.
But we can admit that there are necessary limitations to American foreign policy, without surrendering the belief that we should be a force of good in the world. We can admit that there are unfortunate limitations to standing for freedom and justice in the world, while still understanding and asserting that an international community led by American leadership can create a better world for everyone to live in.
We can understand that the development of free government is a complicated affair and that a people must ultimately choose it themselves, without giving in to a perverse sense of cynical entitlement that says only our freedom matters, only our liberty is worth fighting for, and that denials of human dignity and betrayals of popular sovereignty don’t matter beyond our borders.
We can see to our own, focus on domestic health and stability, and “nation-build” here at home, while still recognizing that we are part of an interconnected world and that our economy, our culture, and our security are all impacted in untold ways by what happens beyond our borders.
Afghanistan is not the end of the American story. Far from it. But it is a troubling and deeply disturbing escalation of the national decay that has been ongoing for decades. There are many lessons to be learned from tragedy. History is full of terrible moments that were turned around when the right lessons were learned. I have hope that we can learn these costly lessons. I have to have that hope because I fear a greater cost should we fail to humble ourselves as we survey the wreckage we have wrought in our pride.