|A difficult page to turn in Afghanistan
by Dr. Grant Campbell
George Santayana was a philosopher and professor at Harvard until 1911. A celebrated academic whose students included Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and W.E.B. Dubois, he spent his life studying and teaching moral philosophy, metaphysics, religion, among other subjects.
He often spoke on the philosophy of war including its greater effects on society despite never serving as a soldier who participated in armed conflict, nor is there any evidence that he was witness to war in his lifetime. Even though much of his musing on the matter may have been more abstract than from actual personal experience, he is credited with what I believe is one of the greatest aphorisms about combat when he said, “only the dead have seen the end of war.”
His words offer a penetrating declaration both about the state of humanity, but also about the path of the combat veteran when their time in uniform has ended. Since those that declare the need for war often never have to participate in its acts, it is left to the soldier to contemplate the after-effects of both their time in war as well as the broader results of the conflict itself. The American veteran is once again faced with such a task.
As these words are written, the Taliban has seized control over the heavily defended city of Mazar-i-Sharif giving them complete control of Northern and Western Afghanistan leaving the current government only a precarious hold of the capital of Kabul and portions of the East.
The U.S. has hastily sent 3,000 troops to aid in the evacuation of personnel and, hopefully, many of the Afghans who have aided the American mission over the years.
Although it is premature to declare the fall of the country as inevitable, most area experts around the globe now feel that not only will the Taliban retake Afghanistan, but it will happen in the very near future.
If this probable trajectory comes to fruition, the world will be left to process the return of Afghanistan to a land ruled by those who see democracy, women’s rights, freedom of religion, and free expression as antithetical to the proper order of things. In other words, it will be almost exactly as it was 20 years ago.
According to the Department of Defense, the war in Afghanistan has taken the lives of over 2,400 American and 1,100 NATO soldiers. These figures do not include the estimated 3,800 U.S. private security contractors who have been killed or, according to The Costs of War Project, the almost 70,000 Afghan soldiers and over 40,000 Afghan civilians who have died. U.S. war costs since the beginning of the conflict have eclipsed $800 billion.
On the positive side, the United Nations estimates that, since 2001, the average life expectancy in Afghanistan has increased from 56 to 64 years of age. Maternal mortality has dropped by more than 50%. Literacy has increased by almost 10%. 89% of city residents in Afghanistan have access to clean water compared to 16% before 2001. There has been a 17% decrease in child marriage and enrollment in primary school by girls has more than doubled. All these figures, while encouraging, are likely to rapidly reverse.
This leaves the American public to process these events and assess the justification of the cost. It will be debated and discussed for decades to come on television, at political podiums, in social gatherings, and chat rooms…but probably nowhere more than the minds of the over 800,000 that have served in the war.
During my time in Afghanistan, my primary job was not to fight, but rather to save. When wounded soldiers and civilians came to me, it was my responsibility and expectation that I would not allow death to take them. My operating rooms ranged from large, hardened structures to tents to old Soviet ammunition bunkers. We would apply our skills and knowledge amongst the screams, the dust, the rocket attacks, and overall chaos to save life and limb. Well more often than not we succeeded, but there were agonizing times that we did not. For those years, I had a front row seat to the sacrifice that was demanded of this war.
Like most veterans, the greatest gift I have received from service are the bonds and friendships of those who have served alongside me. We share a common experience that will link us together for the rest of our lives. However, the belief in the mission was also a buoy to my soul when faced with some of the more challenging times there. I developed a love for the country and its people and an understanding of the suffering that they have endured. Existing amongst those who want to kill you in austere conditions is made easier by the belief that your sacrifices will offer an incremental piece to make the world a better place. In short, I wanted a better future for Afghanistan.
My own boots have been on the ground in the provinces of Kandahar, Logar, Paktika, Kunduz, and Parwan between 2012 and 2016. Of those, only one has not fallen to Taliban forces at the time of writing this article. Many of the friends I have made are still there and are in grave danger. Some are desperate to escape with their families to avoid enslavement, torture, or death and some have pledged to remain and fight for the future of their home even if it costs their lives. I think about them often, but never more than I have over the past several weeks.
There is and will likely always be a divide of understanding between veterans and civilians in terms of the experience of war. Many vets have stated that the divide is made easier by a public that may not understand their stories but appreciate and celebrate the mission that they strived for and hopefully accomplished. The accomplishment of that mission is likely going to be a component that Afghanistan veterans will be denied. So much of the military mindset is focused around achieving objectives and the coming events will be a tough pill to swallow. Winning every battle but seeing the war as lost is a dichotomy that is difficult to accept.
To my fellow veterans: We must reconcile ourselves with the fact that it is unlikely that we will have a Normandy or Iwo Jima to visit in peacetime to share our stories and celebrate the stability and beauty that is there now. There will likely be no shortage of news and information that will show us the backslide that Afghanistan is experiencing and will likely continue to endure. We will question our mission and whether our actions could have been done differently. We will be tasked to resist the temptation to surrender to bitterness and disillusionment.
My challenge to you is simple. Remember that your decision to defend the nation after attack was voluntary in the face of danger and possible death. You served with distinction and brought honor to the uniform issued to you. The horror that was 9/11 has not visited the homeland since your commitment.
Remember that the righteousness of a mission is not dependent on the outcome and your valor should be celebrated independent of geopolitical outcome. We are now charged with the care of each other and to carry ourselves in a way that would bring pride to our brothers and sisters who did not survive.
To the public: Remember the fear and uncertainty that was pervasive in the American soul following 9/11. Remember how we all knew something would have to be done and it would require the lives of some of our citizens. Remember there was a small percentage of our population that said, “I will go.”
We watched them leave their families and lives, often many times over, to push back an infectious scourge that had breeched our borders. We prayed for them and supported them and celebrated their return. Most importantly, remember that we enjoyed a stability and security that was provided by them often at tremendous cost.
We have come a long way as a society since the dark days of post-Vietnam hostility and malaise, but the coming days will remind us that war is not a simple equation. It involves costs of lives and treasure that has been a fact for all human history, but the cost of a portion of our society feeling abandoned and disregarded is one made by choice. We have not always gotten that choice correct in our history, but we have the opportunity to show we have learned from our mistakes and remember that the celebrations and thanks we gave our military over the past two decades were given because we valued the people in uniform independent of the geopolitical condition of the globe.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “wars are not paid for in wartime, the bill comes later.” There is absolutely no expectation that the public will completely understand the soul searching that is likely to occur amongst our nation’s veterans over the near future. But remember that there is an inherent virtue of the volunteer in times of war, and it is a spirit that should be applauded. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the need for such men and women will come again. How we embrace our warriors and commit to their value after the fighting is over will be a far greater verdict on our nation than the volume of the cheers during the actual conflict.
Dr. Grant Campbell practices medicine in Charlotte, NC. He served as a Trauma Surgeon in the United States Army in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan and currently serves on the Board of Advisors for The Independence Fund.
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