The Friend With the Terminal Disease

It is unusual for me to write about something as it happens.  Typically, I reflect on it years later and I sound much smarter for having done so.  The current circumstance is different, however, and the disquiet I feel (and I suspect many others) is occurring real time.

In 2010, as a civilian under the benevolent protection of the 173rd Airborne, I spent a few months wandering through some breathtakingly beautiful and equally dangerous areas of eastern Afghanistan. The area has been the subject of numerous news articles, YouTube videos and mentioned in more purple heart citations than I can count.  The country was lovely, but the people would kill you.

When you have a gun, you scan for threats; when you have a camera, you look at people.  The children are the more interesting subjects by far, as they are less able to conceal true emotions than their elders. Moreover, they tend to reflect whatever their parents told them to think rather than some ideological position of their own.  They are, in some sense, good barometers for your likelihood of getting shot at.

The cute little kids who nervously stared at us on foot patrols in 2010 are more than a decade older now. I wonder how many of the little girls have been given away as brides to much older men.  How many survived the medical risks of childbirth.  I wonder if the boys are farmers like their fathers (scratching out a living growing grapes of all things) and how many are now Taliban fighters moving into the capital.  How many truly hate whatever Afghanistan might have otherwise become, and how many see more security and familiarity in fighting and killing than they do in trying to grow crops at the edge of the Hindu Kush. Fundamentally, I wonder if Afghanistan is returning to its natural state, devolving into the ungovernable, ill-cohesed morass it always was, or colossally failing on a trajectory to peace that most of its inhabitants want but are powerless to achieve.

To be abundantly clear, I never wore a uniform in Afghanistan and wasn’t classifiable as a combatant.  I was an idiot combat vet carrying a camera and foolishly running to the front of the column every time shots were fired. But, I was still an American and still had a lot in common with the Soldiers around me. Sometimes it helped, and sometimes it did not. If anything, I was a combatant refugee from the failing Iraq War and looking for some fresh evidence that the fight was still happening, that the cause was a good one, and that I still somehow belonged in the middle of it.  

Like most veterans, I long ago learned the importance of distinguishing the honor of my own behavior from the overall course of a war.  I did the best I could with the information I had. I served as honorably as I could and committed no act I will later regret as immoral.  I think most of my peers feel similarly, too.  Yet I would also like to think that the highest leaders of the military and the highest leaders of the country also approach warfighting with some iota of moral obligation.  That while it remains supremely ugly business, you still do the honorable thing. That some element of your character, your intent (and less so your delivery) lets you sleep at night sincerely believing that you’re the good guy.  But were we?

When I walk along the roadside and pick up trash that somebody else threw down, it’s now my responsibility to discard it.  If I borrow an old tool and break it, I have to replace it.  If I rear end a car that already had a dent and a scratch and now they’re both considerably worse, the repair is my problem. If I burn down somebody’s dilapidated shack, I am now obligated to rebuild it.  If I invade a country, as screwed up and disastrous as it was, make promises to its people and claim to espouse some superior American ideal, I now have to leave it better than when I arrived.  Isn’t that the honorable thing?  Also, is it not an unattainable aspiration of the last 50 years of US military intervention?

Fundamentally, I do not question my honorable service (again, not in Afghanistan), and nor do I question the same for virtually any other US service member.  Yet I do not necessarily feel the same about a generation of US generals who promised successful counterinsurgency policy and consistently failed to deliver.  Similarly, I do not necessarily feel the same about political leaders who gave them impossible taskers and then evaded responsibility themselves.  There’s plenty of blame to go around.  I struggle to reconcile the honorable behavior I was trained to exhibit with the arguably dishonorable behavior of the institutions who trained me.

Six thousand US troops are either on the way to or on the ground in Afghanistan.  Hold an airport, evacuate the few Americans stupid enough to still be in Afghanistan, load the C-130s with some locals who managed to push through the perimeter fence, take off, and the country will soon return to medieval dark. Changing geopolitical priorities every four years and commanding generals every 8 months has its consequences.  Promises get broken and so also do images of our leaders.

I don’t question most of those who serve/served in the military; at the moment I am questioning their leadership.

A good friend of mine describes Afghanistan today as this: “it’s like watching someone die from a terminal disease. It’s inevitable they will die, but when it happens it’s still a shock.” And, if I may add, it is incredibly painful to watch.

(c) Ben Shaw, 2021. All Rights Reserved


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